Dead Presidents

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

By Anthony Bergen
E-Mail: bergen.anthony@gmail.com
Posts tagged "longreads"

Don’t let my jokes about their names steer you away from the essay I wrote today about Pierce and Hawthorne. I think you’ll like it.

image

The 37th President of the United States was hysterical.  Crumpled in a leather chair in the Lincoln Sitting Room, his favorite of the 132 rooms at his disposal in the White House, Richard Milhous Nixon called for his Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger.  Nixon was drinking, Nixon was exhausted, Nixon was physically and mentally unwell and, hours earlier, Nixon had finally realized that he had no other choice but to become the first President in United States history to resign his office.

A Presidential resignation was so unthinkable that nobody had ever agreed on how a President even resigns his office.  Is his resignation effective the moment he makes his decision?  Does he have to sign anything?  If so, who does he hand his resignation into?  What happens to his things?  His belongings, his property, his papers?  Is the Secret Service responsible for his protection?  How does he even get home after leaving the White House?  In fact, after making the decision to step down, Nixon questioned whether a President could resign at all.  None of these questions had ever been contemplated until it became apparent that the Watergate scandal and subsequent cover-up was fatal to the Nixon Administration.

When Kissinger answered the President’s summons on the evening of August 7th, 1974, he found that Nixon was nearly drunk, sitting in a darkened room, and lost in thought.  Throughout the nearly 200 years of America’s life only 35 other human beings had held the office that Nixon was holding and Nixon was in the unique position of being the only one to decide on resignation.  Nixon was the only person in the history of human existence that had to do what he was forced into doing. 

Nixon was a ferociously introspective person — a man who hated people but loved politics.  Not only did he love politics, but he was extraordinarily skilled at it.  Some would say that Richard Nixon was a terrible politician, but the results prove otherwise.  When he was 33 years old Nixon was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives.  At 38 he was one of California’s United States Senators.  Before he turned 40, he was elected Vice President of the United States alongside Dwight Eisenhower.  A bad politician doesn’t accomplish that much that quickly.  Nixon was narrowly defeated for the Presidency in 1960 by John F. Kennedy and lost a race for Governor of California in 1962 to incumbent Pat Brown, but a bad politician would not have won his party’s nomination for either of those offices. 

The most overlooked barometer of Nixon’s political skill is the fact that he ran for President in three different elections (1960, 1968, and 1972), won two of them, and lost the popular vote in 1960 to John F. Kennedy by just .2% nationwide.  During Richard Nixon’s career, more Americans cast votes in favor of sending him to the White House than Franklin Delano Roosevelt who won an unprecedented four terms.  Over three elections, Nixon received 113,059,260 votes for President — nearly 10 million more than FDR (103,419,425 votes over four elections).  A bad politician couldn’t trick people into casting 113 million votes to make him their leader and allow him to become the most powerful man in the world.

Yet, for all of Richard Nixon’s immense political skills, intelligence, ability, and achievements, he allowed his uncontrollable paranoia to destroy him.  Nixon didn’t need help to win re-election in 1972, but he authorized dirty tricks against the Democratic National Committee and the Democratic nominee, George McGovern.  Nixon and his top aides covered up the break-in at the DNC headquarters at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C., and by the summer of 1974, it was revealed that a secret White House taping system held evidence of the cover-up.  Still, Nixon continued to fight, believing that he could win back the American people and once again come back from disaster as he had done many times before.  This time was different, however.  There was no comeback from this scandal.  If Nixon did not resign, he would be impeached and found guilty in a Senate trial.  If Nixon did not resign, he would probably go to prison.  When the impossibility of survival was finally understood by the President, the man who had told Americans “I am not a quitter” realized that he had to quit.

•••

In the last days of July 1974, most of President Nixon’s aides came to the conclusion that Nixon’s position was untenable and that resignation was imminent.  When Republican Congressional leaders indicated that they would no longer support Nixon and would vote for articles of impeachment, all hope was lost and Vice President Gerald Ford — in office for less than 8 months — began preparations to assume the Presidency.  Nixon held out the longest, but he was so out of touch that he was losing the ability to exercise the powers of his office.  For weeks, the day-to-day operations of the White House — and, really, the Presidency itself — were handled by General Alexander Haig, a four-star Army general and the White House Chief of Staff.  Haig was a longtime holdout in the futile attempt to save Nixon’s Presidency, but the damning evidence that was revealed almost daily in the final weeks of Nixon’s administration left Haig no choice but to attempt to orchestrate a somewhat dignified exit for Nixon and smooth transition for Ford. 

At times in those last few weeks, Nixon brooded in the Lincoln Sitting Room or his secret hideaway office in the Old Executive Office Building across the street from the White House.  Even in the Washington summer, Nixon would sit in one of the two rooms with a fire burning in the fireplace scribbling memos to himself on his familiar yellow legal pads.  The President would drink scotch and get drunk quickly; he was famously unable to handle his low-tolerance for alcohol very well.  Often, an aide or valet would find Nixon loudly blaring his favorite music — the score from the 1950’s documentary “Victory at Sea”.  Other times, Nixon would listen to the tapes from his Oval Office recording system that were bringing his Presidency down around him, rewinding, fast-forwarding, listening again-and-again to his own voice saying the things now coming back to haunt him.

Aides throughout the White House and staff from other departmental agencies worried about the President’s ability to function and continue to lead the country while in his current mental state.  Discussions were quietly held about whether it was necessary to attempt to invoke the 25th Amendment of the Constitution, which calls for the Vice President to assume the powers of the Presidency if the President is somehow incapacitated and unable to discharge the heavy everyday responsibilities of his office.  Nixon was barely sleeping, drinking heavily, and making bizarre, rambling late-night phone calls to subordinates throughout the Executive Branch of the United States government.  Nearly everyone who knew his condition questioned the President’s capacity to function.

There were also serious questions about whether or not Nixon, in a desperate attempt to hold on to power, might use the military to protect himself and the White House.  Tensions were already high in the streets of Washington, D.C. with protesters loudly demonstrating and calling for Nixon’s resignation.  High-ranking officials in the Department of Defense and the White House privately worried about the possibility that Nixon would ring the streets around the White House with tanks and armored personnel carriers, ostensibly to protect the Executive Mansion from acts of civil disobedience, but also to set up a fortress-like barrier that might allow him to remain in the White House in the case of a Congressional or Supreme Court-ordered removal from office.

Most startling of all is the fact that in the week before his resignation, Nixon’s inability to efficiently or appropriately wield executive power had dwindled so far that Secretary of Defense James R. Schlesinger urged General George S. Brown, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to not take military orders directly from the President.  In an attempt to save the country from any extra-constitutional power grab by a desperate President, the military chain-of-command took the extra-constitutional step of removing the President from the loop.  Schlesinger also investigated what his options would be if troops had to forcibly remove the President from office.  The Defense Secretary’s plan was to bring the 82nd Airborne to Washington from Fort Bragg, North Carolina if that was necessary.

While Nixon’s aides and fellow government officials worried about his mental health and ability to lead, Nixon’s family worried about his physical well-being.  The President was exhausted, erratic, and not sleeping well at all.  He downed sleeping pills, drank scotch, and continued sitting alone in one of his two favorite offices.  Nixon attempted to put on a brave face for his family, but they too were weary of the process and his wife Pat’s health was already precarious.  Nixon sometimes found solace in the company of his daughters Tricia and Julie and their respective husbands, Edward Cox and David Eisenhower (grandson of the late President Dwight Eisenhower). 

Yet the toll was terrible on the family and while Nixon’s daughters were supportive and urged him to continue fighting, both Cox and Eisenhower felt that their father-in-law needed to resign for the good of the country and the good of their family, and worried that the President might not leave the White House alive.  On August 6, 1974, Edward Cox called Michigan Senator Robert Griffin, a friend of Nixon’s who was urging resignation.  Notifying the Senator that Nixon seemed irrational, Griffin responded that the President had seemed fine during their last meeting.  Cox went further and explained, “The President was up walking the halls last night, talking to pictures of former Presidents — giving speeches and talking to the pictures on the wall.”  Senator Griffin was flabbergasted and even more taken aback when Cox followed that bombshell with a worried plea for help, “The President might take his own life.”

White House Chief of Staff Alexander Haig also worried about suicide.  A few days earlier, the despondent President and his Chief of Staff were alone when Nixon started talking about how disgraced military officers sometimes fall on their sword.  To Haig, the Army General, Nixon said, “You fellows, in your business, you have a way of handling problems like this.  Somebody leaves a pistol in the drawer.”  Haig was stunned.  Then sadly — bitterly — Nixon said, “I don’t have a pistol.”

Haig was trying to steer the President towards as dignified of an exit as possible in such a dire situation.  Already dealing with the first Presidential resignation, what he definitely wanted to prevent as Chief of Staff was the first-ever Presidential suicide.  Haig worked with the President’s Navy doctors to limit Nixon’s access to pills and tranquilizers.  When Haig mentioned his worries about a Nixon suicide to White House counsel Fred Buzhardt, Buzhardt said he didn’t think Nixon was the type to commit suicide.  Buzhardt believed Nixon was actually a deeply religious man privately, but the White House counsel also thought that Richard Nixon would continue fighting, as he always had, until the ship went down.  Alexander Haig just wanted to keep the President alive.

In his office in the Old Executive Office Building on the evening of Tuesday, August 6th, Nixon met with Haig and Press Secretary Ron Ziegler to inform them that he was definitely resigning before the end of the week and that he would announce the decision in a speech to the nation on Thursday evening from the Oval Office.  Nixon, Haig, and Ziegler discussed ideas for the resignation speech and during a moment of contemplative silence, Nixon looked up at his two loyalists and said, “Well, I screwed it up good, real good, didn’t I?”. 

•••

The morning of August 7th began with Haig notifying Vice President Ford that Nixon’s resignation was imminent and that Ford would be assuming the Presidency within 48 hours.  Though Nixon had told Haig and Ziegler that his decision was irrevocable, the last obstacle to resignation was still Nixon’s indecisiveness, which was a result of the unwavering support from his daughters, Tricia and Julie.  Throughout the day of August 7th, Nixon seemed calm, but said more than once that he had not made up his mind about resignation yet, which worried his exhausted Chief of Staff.  Haig had barely slept over the last four days and he hoped that the President’s meeting with Senate leaders that afternoon would seal the resignation decision.  It did.  During the meeting, Nixon learned that he had virtually no support in either the House of Representatives or the Senate and that staying in office would damage him personally and be dangerous for the country.  After the meeting, Nixon told his loyal secretary Rose Mary Woods that he had no other choice but to resign, and then he directed her to inform his family.  Nixon’s family learned of his final decision from his secretary, and she also told them that the President didn’t wish to discuss the situation when they met for dinner later.  Before Nixon sat down to eat with his family that night, he simply said, “We’re going back to California.”

It was after dinner that night when Nixon summoned Henry Kissinger to the Residence of the White House and sat with his Secretary of State in the Lincoln Sitting Room.  Though the two leaders had worked tirelessly together on foreign policy during Nixon’s administration, they didn’t necessarily like each other.  Nixon was often jealous of Kissinger’s popularity and dismissive of his personality.  Kissinger thought the President was bitterly mean at times, and unnecessarily paranoid about Kissinger’s loyalty.  They worked well together, but more often than not, they downplayed the other’s role in crafting the administration’s foreign policy when speaking to others.  Nixon didn’t trust Kissinger and Kissinger was often angered by Nixon’s irrational behavior, especially in the past few days as the Secretary of State believed the President’s problems had paralyzed the country’s foreign affairs.

On this night, however, Nixon and Kissinger simply talked.  They discussed their accomplishments, their failures, their philosophies and disagreements, and Nixon urged the diplomat to stay on as Secretary of State and provide Gerald Ford with the same service he had provided Nixon.  Sitting there in the smallest room of the White House, Nixon asked Kissinger about how he would be remembered.  Although he had made mistakes, he felt that he had accomplished great things for his country.  Nixon was worried that his legacy would be Watergate and resignation, but he desperately wanted to be thought of as a President who achieved peace.  Kissinger insisted that Nixon would get the credit he deserved.

President Nixon started crying.  At first, it was a teary-eyed hope that his resignation wouldn’t overshadow his long career, but soon, it broke down into sobbing as the President lamented the failures and the disgrace he had brought to his country.  Nixon — a man who never wore his Quaker religion on his sleeve — turned to Kissinger and asked him if he would pray with him.  Despite being Jewish, Kissinger felt he had no choice but to kneel with the President as Nixon prayed for peace — both for his country and for himself. 

After finishing his prayer, Nixon remained in a kneeling position while silently weeping, tears streaming down the large jowls often caricatured by political cartoonists.  Kissinger looked over and saw the President lean down, burying his face in the Lincoln Sitting Room’s carpet and slamming his fist against the ground crying, “What have I done?  What has happened?”.  Nixon and Kissinger both disliked physical affection and Nixon in particular hated being touched, but Kissinger didn’t know any other way to console his weary, broken boss.  Softly patting Nixon’s back at first, Kissinger embraced Nixon in a hug and held the President of the United States until he calmed down and the tears stopped flowing.  Kissinger helped Nixon up to his feet and the men shared another drink, talking openly about what role Nixon could have in the future as a former President.

When Kissinger returned to his office a little later, he couldn’t even begin to explain what had happened to his top aides, Brent Scowcroft and Lawrence Eagleburger.  Kissinger was saddened and shocked, and Eagleburger noted that he had never seen the Secretary of State so moved by something.  A few minutes later, Nixon called Kissinger’s office and Eagleburger listened in on the call on another extension.  The President was clearly drunk and again thanked Kissinger for visiting him, imploring him to help Ford in the same way he had helped Nixon. 

Before hanging up, Nixon pleaded with Kissinger, “Henry, please don’t ever tell anyone that I cried and that I was not strong.” 

•••

It is telling that even while losing control and finding himself at the end of his rope, President Nixon was concerned about looking weak.  Throughout his long career, Nixon saw himself as a fighter and tried to portray himself as such.  But Nixon also proudly saw himself as a man who had to earn everything he achieved, without any help from anyone else, and despite obstacles constantly being thrown in his path.  Nixon felt that the media was out to get him because he wasn’t charismatic or flashy like his old rival, John F. Kennedy.  Nixon felt that there was something sinister behind every issue he faced, and he went too far in his attempt to destroy those that he felt were trying to destroy him.

Before leaving the White House on August 9th, 1974, Nixon made an impromptu speech to White House employees in the East Room of the mansion.  It is one of the most revealing speeches of any President at any time in history, and it is Nixon without his guard up; Nixon with nothing left to lose.  He talked about his family, his achievements, and his appreciation for the people who worked in his administration.  He rambled at times, and he was clearly saddened by the situation.  And, towards the end of his speech, Richard Nixon — with just minutes left in his Presidency — seemed to have finally learned his lesson:

“Always give your best, never get discouraged, never be petty; always remember, others may hate you, but those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself.”


With that, Richard Milhous Nixon and his family walked out on to the South Lawn of the White House, accompanied by the man who would soon assume the Presidency, Gerald Ford and his wife, Betty.  As he boarded the Presidential helicopter, Marine One, Nixon turned around to face the cameras and the White House and the country, smiled wanly, defiantly thrust his trademark peace sign salute into the air over his head and waved goodbye to the Presidency and hello to history.

image

I always love when Longreads shows me some love — it’s been one of my favorite websites for a few years now. If you’re looking for great non-fiction and fiction pieces from fantastic writers, become a Longreads member today.

“I have noticed that nothing I never said ever did me any harm.”


Calvin Coolidge was a weird guy. Biographical history is often painted with bright colors and written in a positive light, especially when it attains to leaders such as Presidents of the United States. Sometimes, a critical study is undertaken but even then, the route traveled is serious and often reverential. However, it is sometimes necessary to be direct, honest, and, yes, opinionated, and the truth is that Calvin Coolidge was a weird guy.

Born on the Fourth of July in 1872, Coolidge grew up in Vermont serious and stern, if not downright shy.  He went to Amherst College and began practicing law in Massachusetts after graduation, opening his own law practice in Northampton just before the beginning of the 20th century. Along the way, Coolidge met and married a woman who was his polar opposite when it came to personality. Grace Anna Goodhue was vivacious and outgoing, popular and entertaining. Her first glimpse of Calvin Coolidge came two years before their marriage and was a memorable one. Grace was watering flowers and plants outside of the school for the deaf that she taught at; Calvin was standing in the room of his boardinghouse across the street, shaving in front of a full-length mirror while wearing nothing more than long underwear and a hat. The sound of Grace laughing out loud at the ridiculous sight of him led Calvin to notice his future wife for the first time and a few days later, he asked his landlord to introduce him to her.

When she married Coolidge, many of Grace’s friends were stunned at the union, unable to understand just what it was that she saw in him.  What she saw was a man driven by ambition and a savage work ethic, but also a man completely incorruptible and straightforward. She also learned that her husband was not the quiet, boring, dour man that he appeared to be to the public.  He was eccentric and funny, with a dry wit and mischievous streak that inspired many practical jokes. One of his favorite jokes as President was to simultaneously push every button on his desk in the White House and then hide as secretaries, military assistants, valets, Secret Service agents, and even Cabinet officers frantically searched for him.

Coolidge rose quickly in the Republican Party and Massachusetts politics, campaigning for William McKinley in 1896 and 1900, and holding various local offices in the first few years of the new century. Over the next fifteen years, Coolidge climbed steadily through state and local politics, serving as a member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, Mayor of Northampton, Massachusetts State Senator, Lieutenant Governor of Massachusetts, and finally Governor in 1918. As Governor, Coolidge won nationwide popularity for his stance during the Boston Police Strike of 1919, where he famously stated that, “There is no right to strike against the public safety by anyone, anywhere, any time.”

Re-elected in 1919, Coolidge was nominated by the Republicans in 1920 as the running mate to Presidential candidate Warren G. Harding. Coolidge was not excited by the prospect of the Vice Presidency, but campaigned on behalf of the ticket nonetheless and Harding and Coolidge won a landslide victory and were sworn into office in March 1921. The Harding Administration was a disaster, ravaged by corruption and inefficiency, and President Harding was admittedly unqualified to be an effective or successful leader. Coolidge had very few duties as Vice President since the Vice Presidency had been a weak position in the American government up to that point in history.  Most Vice Presidents floundered in obscurity, stuck in a limbo; not quite a member of Executive branch and not quite a member of the Legislative branch.  Coolidge, however, was actually the first Vice President in American History to attend Cabinet meetings — something that is seemingly an automatic responsibility of the Vice President today.

Shortly after midnight on August 3, 1923, Calvin’s father, John Coolidge, was awakened by three men who knocked at the door of his farm in Plymouth Notch, Vermont. Mr. Coolidge lived in a simple home and did not have a telephone, so the three men drove to the house from Bridgewater, a town about 15 miles away. They had urgent news to deliver and passed it to Mr. Coolidge who immediately walked upstairs and called for his son, who had been sleeping and was visiting his father while on vacation.

The Coolidge family never wasted words. John Coolidge simply notified his son that President Harding had died in San Francisco a few hours earlier. Calvin Coolidge calmly got dressed and walked across the street to a general store where he contacted Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes by telephone, drank a Moxie beverage, and left a nickel to pay for it. Coolidge then walked back across the street to his father’s home.

On the advice of Secretary Hughes and Chief Justice (and former President) William Howard Taft, Coolidge prepared to be inaugurated as President as quickly as possible. John Coolidge was a justice of the peace and notary public, and in that capacity the father administered the Presidential Oath of Office to his son at 2:47 AM on August 3, 1923. Calvin Coolidge was sworn in as the 30th President of the United States in the sitting room of his father’s simple home which was illuminated by candles and the light from a kerosene lamp since the house also lacked electricity. Just minutes after he officially became President, Calvin Coolidge went right back to bed and enjoyed a full night of sleep. The next morning, President Coolidge prepared to return to Washington. Despite the gravity of the situation, he only had a parting sentence for his father. As he left John Coolidge’s home, President Coolidge stumbled on a loose step in the front yard, turned to his father and simply said, “Better get that fixed” and headed to the White House.

“Four-fifths of all our troubles would disappear if we would only sit down and keep still,” President Coolidge was once quoted as saying and he was anything but an activist President. Coolidge was a forceful opponent of what we would presently identify as “big government”.  One of the new President’s main objectives was to restore confidence in the federal government which had grown wildly and been infected by scandals and corruption due to bad appointments and terrible leadership by Warren G. Harding. Coolidge achieved this objective by shrinking the government, touting private business growth, and eliminating programs and economic regulations that were born from World War I. Coolidge was a small-government conservative on the scale of Ronald Reagan, but sixty years ahead of his time. In fact, one of Coolidge’s biggest fans was Reagan himself who, after becoming President in 1981, replaced a Cabinet Room portrait of Harry Truman with Coolidge.

With his focus on balancing the budget, cutting taxes, and decreasing the size and role of the federal government, Calvin Coolidge would be a dream candidate for the Republican Party here in the 21st century. “Perhaps one of the most important accomplishments of my administration has been minding my own business,” Coolidge said while President. Minding his own business came naturally to President Coolidge.

While he was certainly ambitious and hard-working, that hard work didn’t necessarily mean long hours in the office.  Coolidge may have found admirers in successors like Reagan and George W. Bush for other reasons besides small government conservatism — it was well-known that the President enjoyed his sleep and usually slept no less than eleven hours a day.  Coolidge was sure to be in bed by 10:00 PM and normally awakened between 7:00 AM and 9:00 AM. As if that wasn’t enough, Coolidge somehow found enough time to religiously squeeze in a nap every single day. In fact, maybe it should be said that Coolidge somehow found enough time to squeeze in some work every single day, as his midday naps lasted anywhere from two to four hours long, leading the great journalist H. L. Mencken to observe that “Nero fiddled while Rome burned, but Coolidge only snores.” Coolidge insisted that his sleep habits were actually a positive for the United States — if he was asleep, he couldn’t mess anything up — and the he often woke up and asked an aide, “Is the country still here?”. One evening, the President attended the theater to see the Marx Brothers perform Animal Crackers, and upon noticing Coolidge in the audience, Groucho Marx yelled to him, “Isn’t it past your bedtime, Calvin?”.

Undoubtedly, the most famous aspect of Calvin Coolidge’s life and the source of his nickname, “Silent Cal”, was his legendary taciturnity.  Coolidge was a man of few words who said as little as possible and only as much as necessary, treating each spoken word as if it was an endangered resource unable to be recycled and reused in the future.  Coolidge’s reticence is documented in a multitude of anecdotes, most of which also highlight his sense of humor.  While he said very little, what Coolidge said — or how Coolidge said it — was often very funny.  One of the most well-remembered stories is of a woman seated next to President Coolidge at a dinner party who turned to Coolidge and said, “You must talk to me, Mr. President! I made a bet today that I could get more than two words out of you.” Coolidge looked at the woman and simply replied, “You lose.”

During the 1924 campaign in which Coolidge won a Presidential term of his own, he answered questions for reporters who had been pleading for a question-and-answer session. One reporter asked, “Have you any statement on the campaign?”. “No,” said Coolidge. “Can you tell us something about the world situation?”, asked another reporter. “No,” said Coolidge. “Any information about Prohibition?”, asked yet another reporter. “No,” said Coolidge once again.  Knowing that they weren’t going to get anything new from the President, the reporters began to disperse as Coolidge quickly said, “Now, remember — don’t quote me.”

Part of Coolidge’s reluctance to speak was that he was shy, but a bigger reason is that he was cautious. In his autobiography, Coolidge noted, “The words of a President have an enormous weight and ought not to be used indiscriminately”, and often said, “If you don’t say anything, you won’t be called upon to repeat it.” To the actress Ethel Barrymore, Coolidge said, “I think the American people want a solemn ass as a President, and I think I will go along with them.” Coolidge’s restraint and quiet demeanor camouflaged a superb self-confidence of his own abilities.  When Charles Hopkinson was painting Coolidge’s portrait a few years into his Administration, he brought up the calm demeanor that Coolidge was said to possess when learning of President Harding’s death and realizing that he was now President. “Mr. President,” the painter asked, “What was your first thought when you heard that Harding had died?” If the artist was looking for some deep insight or a fascinating revelation about the new President feeling anxiety or intimidation about the sudden and dramatic transfer of power, Hopkinson didn’t find a hint of it. On his feelings about assuming the Presidency, Coolidge simply responded, “I thought I could swing it.”

There was certainly a fun-loving side to Coolidge’s austere personality. Many Americans had no idea that their restrained President had a mechanical horse installed in the White House that he rode regularly, sometimes while pretending he was a cowboy. And, oddly enough for man who was seemingly so shy, Coolidge is seen in more newsreels and photographs than any of his predecessors — an unusual number of which depict him wearing unique hats or colorful headgear. Also, despite his reserved nature, President Coolidge held more press conferences than any of his predecessors — 529 in all. While he may not have been the most quotable of Presidents or have given reporters answers with the details they were seeking, he gave them every opportunity to ask questions.

Coolidge and his wife were animal lovers throughout their lives and though the President had very few human friends and was uncomfortable interacting with his own species socially, he doted on his pets and considered them his closest friends. Even as President, he had numerous dogs, cats, and birds living in the White House. During his Presidency, people sent him animals as gifts, and he received a black bear, lion cubs, a hippopotamus, a wallaby, a wombat, and a deer, all of which Coolidge donated to zoos. The President’s most famous pet was Rebecca the Raccoon. Rebecca lived in the White House and Coolidge spent afternoons playing with her after he finished his paperwork, sometimes even walking her around the White House on a leash.

In 1924, Coolidge won election in his own right as President, but lost much more. His 16-year-old son, Calvin Jr., received a blister on his toe while playing tennis in sneakers without socks on the White House tennis courts. Shortly afterward, the blister became infected and Calvin Jr. died of blood poisoning. The Coolidges were devastated and in many photographs, the President is seen wearing a black armband in mourning. “When he went, the power and the glory of the Presidency went with him,” said Coolidge. “The ways of Providence are often beyond our understanding. I do not know why such a price was exacted for occupying the White House.”

As 1928 approached, President Coolidge was enormously popular and the country was prospering, but in August 1927, a vacationing Coolidge gathered reporters so he could make a statement. The statement was just a single sentence passed out to reporters on a slip of paper: “I do not choose to run for President in 1928”. Without further explanation, he ended the press conference and walked away. Some historians believe Coolidge retired because he felt that the next four years would require greater spending by the federal government and he was ill-equipped to manage that type of government. Others, however, believe that Coolidge understood that a financial crisis was coming and he retired in order to protect his legacy of prosperity as President.

The Republican Party nominated Herbert Hoover for President in 1928, and Coolidge was lukewarm about Hoover’s candidacy, noting, “That man has offered me unsolicited advice for the past six years, all of it bad.” Hoover won the election, however, and Coolidge offered the incoming President advice of his own, suggesting that Hoover could rid himself of long-winded visitors by simply sitting still and remaining completely silent until the visitor stopped talking on their own, explaining that “If you keep dead still, they will run down in three or four minutes.”. After attending Hoover’s inauguration, Coolidge retired to his home, “The Beeches”, in Northampton, Massachusetts. Just months after Hoover’s inauguration in 1929, the stock market crashed and sent the economy into the Great Depression.

In retirement, Coolidge wrote his autobiography and a syndicated newspaper column, working from home in Massachusetts and enjoying his privacy. In 1932, some Republicans were hoping to dump the unpopular President Hoover — who was destined for certain defeat — from the GOP ticket and replace him with Coolidge. When Coolidge was told that his return to the White House would “be the end of this horrible depression”, the former President replied, “It would be the beginning of mine.” Coolidge refused to be drafted as a candidate and Hoover was destroyed by Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1932 election.

On January 5, 1933, Calvin Coolidge quietly worked on a jigsaw puzzle of George Washington in an upstairs bedroom of “The Beeches” in Northampton, Massachusetts.  Grace Coolidge went into town to do some shopping at about noon and when she came home about an hour later she found her beloved husband, the 30th President of the United States, laying flat on his back on the floor in his shirtsleeves, dead of a massive heart attack at the age of 60. Fittingly, Coolidge’s last words went unrecorded and his Last Will and Testament was a total of just 23 words in length. Coolidge’s funeral was characteristically quiet and simple, and his headstone in the Plymouth Notch Cemetery in Plymouth, Vermont has only his name, date of birth, date of death, and a small Presidential seal inscribed at the top.

Many tributes were written and eulogies were spoken upon Coolidge’s death. With his official announcement of Coolidge’s passing, President Hoover said, “His name had become in his own lifetime a synonym for sagacity and wisdom; and his temperateness in speech and his orderly deliberation in action bespoke the profound sense of responsibility which guided his conduct of the public business.” The most appropriate tribute to Calvin Coolidge may have come from The New Yorker’s Dorothy Parker. When told that Coolidge was dead, the writer said, “How can they tell?”

On February 28, 1844, Dolley Madison was far removed from her time as First Lady of the United States.  Her husband, James Madison, had left the White House almost 27 years earlier and he had died in 1836, but Dolley – now 75 years old – remained a darling of the Washington social scene.  Though she struggled financially, Dolley Madison continued entertaining guests in the nation’s capital and she helped organize social gatherings around the city, acting as a sort of guest hostess wherever she visited.  Now, as the first auguries of spring began their awakening in-and-around Washington, D.C., Dolley had helped plan a cruise down the Potomac River on the newly-built USS Princeton – a showcase vessel for the United States Navy which happened to be one of the most advanced warships of its time.

Launched just six months earlier, the Princeton was the U.S. Navy’s first propeller-driven warship and its Captain, Robert Field Stockton was proud of his charge.  A cruise to demonstrate the ship’s speed, capabilities, and weaponry to the Washington elite would be advantageous to the Navy’s growth and to Captain Stockton’s ambition.  Besides Dolley Madison and the Princeton’s crew of 178 sailors, the ship welcomed over 350 guests, including dignitaries such as Secretary of State Abel Upshur, Secretary of the Navy Thomas W. Gilmer, Secretary of War William Wilkins, Postmaster General Charles A. Wickliffe, Senator Thomas Hart Benton, and other diplomats and members of Congress.  The most celebrated guest on the Princeton that day, however, was President John Tyler, who had also invited a young woman he had been romantically interested in, Julia Gardiner, and her father, David Gardiner, an influential New York lawyer and former State Senator.

Everyone on board the Princeton had underlying reasons for taking the cruise down the Potomac.  For some, it was to see the Princeton for themselves.  For others, it was because it was the place to be for politicians and diplomats on that day.  Some took the cruise for the opportunity to observe others, and some took the cruise in order to be noticed.  The big draw, however, was a chance to see the Princeton’s two large guns, the Oregon and the Peacemaker, being fired.  Both guns were impressive, but the Peacemaker was an amazing spectacle – at the time, it was the largest naval gun in the world.  The ship was so new and the Peacemaker was so powerful that on the day of the cruise down the Potomac, it had been fired no more than five times, according to Captain Stockton.

In February 1844, John Tyler was entering the final year of a contentious, controversial, and accidental Presidency.  Elected as Vice President alongside William Henry Harrison in 1840, Tyler spent only a month in the Vice Presidency before President Harrison died in office.  On April 4, 1841, Tyler became the 10th President of the United States, but his succession was not a smooth one.  Harrison had been the first President to die in office and the Constitution was not specifically clear about Presidential succession.  To many, including everyone in President Harrison’s Cabinet, Tyler was still the Vice President and only assumed the duties of the Presidency, not the title or privileges (such as living in the White House).  At his first meeting with the men Harrison had appointed to the Cabinet, the Cabinet all but insisted that they would rule by committee and that Tyler had no more power or influence than, say, the Postmaster General.  Many Americans felt that Tyler was merely “Acting President”, and that he was to defer to the will of the Cabinet on all issues.


Tyler vehemently disagreed and the manner in which he assumed office set a precedent that was followed by all future Vice Presidents and was eventually cemented into the Constitution.  Tyler declared that he was not the Vice President or the “Acting President”, but that Harrison’s death and propelled him directly into the office of President of the United States to serve out the remainder of Harrison’s term with the same powers and duties and privileges that come with the office.  Tyler moved into the White House and when his Cabinet balked at his assumption of power, he accepted the resignation of everyone but his Secretary of State, Daniel Webster (Webster eventually resigned in 1843). 

President Tyler’s troubles did not disappear once Harrison’s Cabinet departed.  The slavery question was tearing the nation further and further apart by the day.  When Tyler won election in 1840 as Harrison’s Vice President, he did so as a member of the Whig Party, but he was all over the political spectrum.  As a younger man, he supported Thomas Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans and he supported Andrew Jackson during Jackson’s first term before becoming a Whig.  Upon his Vice Presidential nomination, there were questions about Tyler’s Whig credentials, but the Whigs needed a strong Southern balance on the ticket and accepted Tyler.  Now that he was President, Tyler’s independence frustrated his party.  With Whigs in control of Congress and the White House, the party attempted to establish another Bank of the United States now that Andrew Jackson was out of the picture and retired in Nashville.  Congress pushed through a bill creating a new Bank of the United States, but President Tyler betrayed his party and vetoed the bill twice.  So, just months after assuming the Presidency, Tyler was expelled from the Whigs and remained a President without a party until he left office in 1845.

Now, on a warm day at the end of February 1844, Tyler was thinking about whether or not he would support the annexation of Texas.  The President also thought of romance.  In September 1842, Tyler’s wife, Letitia, died in the White House after suffering a stroke.  Tyler was still grieving when he began courting Julia Gardiner in January 1843.  Tyler had met Julia while his wife was still alive, but he didn’t become smitten with her until after his wife’s death.  Tyler and Julia kept their relationship guarded from the public and the President was even secretive about it to his family.  Part of the reason for his reluctance to be open about his feelings was because Letitia had only been dead for a few months when he started dating Julia.  However, a bigger reason was Julia’s age.  When they began dating, Julia Gardiner was just 22 years old.  The 52-year-old President was wary about how his children (he and Letitia had seven children) would feel about him dating a woman who was five years younger than his oldest daughter. 


The age difference also worried Julia’s family.  Julia Gardiner was the daughter of David Gardiner, a wealthy New York lawyer and former New York State Senator.  She was born in 1820 on an island in the Long Island Sound named after her family, and had everything that she wanted or needed while growing up on Gardiner’s Island.  Julia was beautiful and much in demand by the eligible bachelors of the East Coast.  After meeting President Tyler, Julia first tried to reject his advances, but she was certainly intrigued by the powerful and charming Virginian.  For his part, Tyler was madly in love with Julia and he proposed to her in late-1843.  Julia’s mother did not approve of her daughter marrying a man 30 years older than Julia, so Tyler didn’t get an answer.  By inviting Julia and her father to accompany him on the Princeton, John Tyler hoped to show David Gardiner that he could impress the wealthy New Yorker and demonstrate that he could be a wonderful husband to Julia.

•••

Guests gathered at the Washington Navy Yard as ferries transported them across the Potomac River to Alexandria, Virginia, where the USS Princeton was anchored and ready for the afternoon cruise down the Potomac.  As dignitaries boarded Captain Stockton’s ship, they marveled at the size of the two guns on deck and examined every inch of the 164-foot warship.  Music was provided by the Marine Band — “The President’s Own” – and food was served below deck as the Princeton began its leisurely cruise down the Potomac.  As guests explored the Princeton and watched the historic sites on both shores of the Potomac pass by, the massive Peacemaker was fired to the delight of everyone on the ship.  The rounds fired by the powerful Peacemaker were capable of traveling up to three miles.  As the warship cruised down the river the rounds that were fired were aimed at ice floes in the distance which were breaking apart as the sun warmed the Potomac.   The cruise continued, with men mostly on the deck and pretty much all women below deck where food and drinks flowed freely, conversation was genial, and some of the guests were gleefully singing and clearly enjoying themselves.

When the Princeton reached Mount Vernon and George Washington’s sprawling estate came into view, the ship fired another round from the Peacemaker in tribute to the 1st President and then turned around for the return trip to Washington, D.C.  The Princeton’s passengers had gathered below deck for celebratory toasts and to listen to the impromptu singing concert taking place in the salon.  At around 4:00 PM, some of the men requested to witness the Peacemaker be fired again, but Captain Stockton demurred, telling the men “No more guns tonight.”  However, one of the men who wished to see the Peacemaker fired once again was Thomas W. Gilmer, the man who had become Secretary of the Navy just 10 days earlier – a man who just happened to be Captain Stockton’s superior.  Gilmer’s wish was something akin to an order to Captain Stockton, so Stockton headed to the deck and had the gun prepared to be fired once more.

Men began heading upstairs to witness the firing of the Peacemaker while the women remained below deck and continued with their songs and conversations.  President Tyler was heading up the gangway plank towards the deck when he was told that his son-in-law, William Waller, wife of his daughter Elizabeth, was about to sing one of Tyler’s favorite songs.  Instead of heading to the deck, the President headed back into the salon and was handed a drink.  Upstairs, men crowded around the giant Peacemaker for one last firing.

On the deck, Secretary of War William Wilkins jokingly told the spectators, “Though I am Secretary of War, I do not like this firing, and believe I shall run!” before moving to the far side of the Princeton.  The remainder of the guests were close to the Peacemaker and the big gun was ready to be fired.  The Princeton was about 15 miles downriver from Washington, D.C. and two sailors took the final steps for firing the gun.

Instantly, a massive explosion rocked the Princeton and the deck was obscured by white smoke and an eerie silence.  President Tyler rushed up to the deck to investigate what had happened, but what he found was a horrific scene.  The Peacemaker – the largest naval gun in the world – had exploded at the breech.  The powerful explosion tore part of the ship’s deck and the Peacemaker broke into red-hot pieces of iron that flew into the crowd of spectators.  Nobody downstairs was injured, but the deck of the Princeton was a place of horror.  Eight people had been killed and 17 were seriously injured, including Captain Stockton and Senator Thomas Hart Benton.  As President Tyler reached the deck, the silence turned to anguished screams and confusion. 

The President fought through the smoke and found that the toll was high.  Secretary of State Abel Upshur was dead – literally disemboweled by the blast.  Navy Secretary Gilmer was dead.  The Princeton’s Commander Beverly Kennon and two Princeton sailors were dead.  American diplomat Virgil Maxcy was dead.  President Tyler’s slave, Armistead, who had requested and been granted permission from Tyler to view the gun as it was being fired was dead.  And, finally, David Gardiner – the father of the woman that the President hoped to marry – was also killed by the blast, his arms and legs severed from his body by the force of the explosion.  A tearful President was devastated by the loss of two of his Cabinet members, and he headed back down below deck to notify the women about what had happened.  Screaming and crying hysterically, the surviving men kept them off of the deck so that they didn’t see the gruesome scene.

The smoke-filled deck was covered with blood, dismembered limbs, dead bodies, and stunned survivors.  Below decks, the women who had accompanied the Princeton awaited news from above, which quickly trickled downstairs.  Someone yelled, “The Secretary of State is dead!” and the news did not improve.  When Julia Gardiner found out that her father was among those who had been killed in the blast, she fainted – directly into the arms of President Tyler.  Dolley Madison, who had seen much in her 75 years was certainly stunned by the tragedy, but she quickly did her best to comfort the Princeton’s passengers who were shaken and distressed. 

As the USS Princeton limped back to Washington, D.C., John Tyler comforted Julia Gardiner as best as he could.  For the President, his pleasure cruise with the woman he hoped to marry and her father could not have gone worse.  Now, David Gardiner lay in pieces on the deck of the Princeton as Tyler – who was also returning to Washington without a Secretary of State and Secretary of the Navy – tried to console Gardiner’s young daughter, but she remained unconscious until the ship arrived back in Alexandria, Virginia.  

When the Princeton arrived at Alexandria, President Tyler literally carried Julia Gardiner from the wounded warship.  On the gangplank, Julia finally awakened in the President’s arms, and as she later said, “I struggled so that I almost knocked both of us off the gangplank.  I did not know at the time, but I learned later it was the President whose life I almost consigned to the water.”  President Tyler had Julia taken directly to the White House where she spent the next few days recuperating under the watchful eyes of the President and his large family.

The bodies of Julia’s father, the two Cabinet members (Upshur and Gilmer), the Princeton’s Commander Kennon, and the diplomat Maxcy remained on board the Princeton on the night of the 28th.  The injured went to hospitals and homes around the capital city.  The next day, Washington was in official mourning as the word of the tragedy spread and the signs of mourning – black crepe hanging on the White House and other public buildings – were displayed.  As Washington mourned, the bodies of Gardiner, Upshur, Gilmer, Kennon, and Maxcy were transported to the White House, where their flag-draped caskets rested in honor in the East Room.  (It’s safe to assume that President Tyler’s slave wasn’t awarded the same honors – when the bodies were removed from the Princeton, they were all placed in magnificent mahogany caskets, except for Armistead, who was placed in one made from cherry.)

After two days of lying in state in the East Room, Gardiner, Upshur, Gilmer, and Kennon were transferred to St. John’s Episcopal Church, where all of official Washington showed up to pay their respects at their joint funeral (Maxcy’s family took his remains for a private funeral and burial shortly after his body arrived at the Executive Mansion).  It was a solemn occasion – one of the biggest tragedies to strike the United States up to that point, and a significant loss to President Tyler, both professionally and personally.  Tyler was mourning two important members of his Cabinet, and the woman he hoped to marry was burying her father after he had been killed in the most gruesome manner imaginable on a cruise that Tyler had invited him to take.

The funeral started with an ominous and unfortunate signal:  the firing of loud artillery across from the Executive Mansion could not have been a pleasant reminder to those who had survived the tragedy on board the Princeton a few days earlier.  The bodies of Upshur, Gilmer, Kennon, and Gardiner were taken to Congressional Cemetery following the funeral and buried there, although Gardiner was later exhumed and reburied on Gardiner’s Island in New York.  After narrowly escaping death or serious injury on the Princeton a few days earlier, President Tyler found himself in danger once again as he left the funeral.  Traveling through the busy streets of Washington in his horse-drawn carriage, the President’s horses were startled by the crowds and bolted – leaving Tyler helpless in a runaway carriage until a man bravely rushed out from a hotel entrance and helped stop the carriage.

•••

The comfort of President Tyler in the aftermath of her father’s death changed Julia Gardiner’s mind about marrying the much older President.  Tyler had done everything possible to console her and make her feel safe in the days after the Princeton explosion.  Later, Julia would write that, “After I lost my father, I felt differently towards the President.  He seemed to fill the place and to be more agreeable in every way than any younger man was or could be.” While the loss of her father was certainly tragic, John Tyler happened to be in the right place at the right time, and, in a way, David Gardiner’s death may have helped the romance between the President and Gardiner’s daughter.  Several weeks after the Princeton tragedy, Tyler asked Julia’s mother for Julia’s hand in marriage and Mrs. Gardiner approved of the union.

Still, the marriage was not without controversy.  The wedding took place on June 26, 1844, just a few months after the Princeton explosion.  Julia and her family were still in mourning for Mr. Gardiner, so the wedding was solemn and low-key.  Plus, the President’s family – particularly his daughters from his first marriage – were reluctant to accept his new bride.  After all, Tyler’s first wife had died less than two years earlier, and Julia Gardiner was about the same age as Tyler’s daughters; in fact, she was five years younger than Tyler’s oldest daughter.  One more unique aspect of the wedding was that this was the first time an incumbent President of the United States had ever been married while in office.  Normally, it would be blockbuster social news, but the President’s wedding was kept strictly private.

Accompanied only by his son, John Tyler, III, the President and Julia Gardiner were married at the Church of the Ascension in Manhattan (which is still standing today, at Fifth Avenue and Tenth Street in Greenwich Village) on June 26, 1844.  Very few people even knew that the President was in town until after the wedding when they heard the salute from the guns of warships in New York Harbor as he and his new First Lady departed the city (again, maybe firing the guns wasn’t the greatest idea for this particular couple).  According to one of the only eyewitness accounts of the wedding, published in The New York Morning Express the day after the nuptials, the bride was given away by her brother and “robed simply in white, with a gauze veil depending from a circlet of white flowers wreathed in her hair.”  After the ceremony, the wedding party held a dinner at Lafayette Place before the President and Mrs. Tyler departed the city by steamer, staying the night in Philadelphia, before proceeding back to Washington on a special train the next day.


When President Tyler left office in 1845, he and his wife retired to Tyler’s plantation in Virginia, Sherwood Forest.  They had seven children (in addition to the seven surviving children from Tyler’s first marriage) and remained happily married, despite the 30-year age difference between the husband and wife.  In January 1862, the Tylers headed to Richmond for Tyler’s inauguration as a member of the Confederate House of Representatives.  Tyler was the only former President who did not remain loyal to the Union during the Civil War.  On January 18th, the 71-year-old Tyler died in Richmond’s Exchange Hotel, likely due to complications from a stroke and was buried in Richmond’s Hollywood Cemetery with Confederate honors.  Widely considered a traitor in the North, official notice of Tyler’s death wasn’t taken until 1915 when Congress finally erected a monument near his grave.


Julia Gardiner Tyler lived until 1889, but two of President and Mrs. Tyler’s grandsons are still living.  With seven children (the last of which died in 1947 – 157 years after John Tyler’s birth!), the Tylers were blessed with a wealth of grandchildren, and Lyon Gardiner Tyler, Jr. (born in 1924) and Harrison Ruffin Tyler (born in 1928) are still alive today.  Harrison Tyler even continues to maintain President Tyler’s beloved Virginia plantation, Sherwood Forest.

•••

As for the USS Princeton, well, it never truly recovered from the Peacemaker explosion.  Captain Robert Field Stockton was absolved of blame for the tragedy and went on to fame in California during the Mexican War (he has a city named after him near Sacramento), and later was elected United States Senator from New Jersey.  The Princeton participated in engagements in the Gulf of Mexico during the Mexican War, but its hull was found to be rotting after the war ended.  It was broken up for scrap in Boston and the Peacemaker’s twin gun – the Oregon – can be seen today on the grounds of the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.

During World War II, a new USS Princeton was commissioned.  A 622-foot-long aircraft carrier, the new Princeton engaged in action in the Pacific Ocean.  On October 20, 1944 – 100 year after the explosion of the Peacemaker – the modern Princeton was attacked by a Japanese dive bomber in the Leyte Gulf and 108 sailors were killed.  Even the Princeton’s descendants seem to be cursed.


There are reasons for the absence of smiles and the prevalence of furrowed brows in the photographs of Andrew Johnson.  His life was not easy.  Born into poverty, his family was plunged deeper into it when his father died when Johnson was just three years old.  Johnson’s mother did her best to provide for Andrew and his older brother, William, but her work as a weaver and spinner was ultimately not enough.  At the age of 14, he and his brother were bound as apprentices to a tailor in Raleigh, North Carolina.  An indentured servant, Johnson was living only a little better than a slave, and despite learning a valuable trade, could hardly bear his life.  Two years after he was bound to the tailor, Johnson and his brother broke their contract and escaped to South Carolina, returning briefly to Raleigh to gather up his mother and move to Greeneville, Tennessee where he opened his own tailor shop at the age of 17.

Because of his situation, Andrew Johnson never attended a day of school.  During his apprenticeship in Raleigh, several men who frequented the tailor shop read to Johnson as he worked and with a book he received as a gift, Johnson labored hard in free moments at night to teach himself how to read.  Upon moving to Greeneville, the 17-year-old Johnson met 15-year-old Eliza McCardle.  A student at a local school, Eliza and Andrew were married less than a year after they met and since she was thoroughly educated in comparison with Johnson, Eliza taught him how to write, do basic arithmetic, and improve his reading skills.

Johnson was a quick learner, a skilled orator, and had a gift for politics which he began to exploit early, relying on his ability to connect with common people and his popularity as a first-class tailor with a thriving local business.  Elected an Alderman in Greeneville just two years after moving to Tennessee, Johnson became Mayor in 1830 at the age of 22.  By his 27th birthday, Johnson was serving in the Tennessee House of Representatives.  At 33, he was elected to the Tennessee State Senate.  In 1843, Johnson headed to Washington as a Democratic member of the U.S. House of Representatives, where he would serve five terms.

In 1852, Johnson’s rapid rise in politics led him to Nashville as Governor of Tennessee where, in two terms, he championed education and agricultural advancements at home and supported pro-slavery Democrats and the Kansas-Nebraska Act nationally.  In 1857, the Tennessee State Legislature unanimously elected Johnson as Tennessee’s newest United States Senator.

Johnson’s Senate term became historic and not just because he was the architect of the Homestead Act — the most influential, lasting accomplishment of the Lincoln Administration not directly related to the Civil War.  As the Civil War approached, Johnson was a steadfast defender of slavery, unsurprising due to the his Southern roots and his unabashed white supremacy.  What was unique about Andrew Johnson was his vehement opposition to secession.  Johnson harshly criticized President Buchanan (a fellow Democrat) for his inaction in the face of secession and his failure to suppress the Confederate insurrection.  In a stunning reversal, Johnson — who supported Stephen A. Douglas in the 1850’s and John C. Breckinridge for President in 1860 — voiced his support for Abraham Lincoln.

As the nation headed to war, Johnson worked with passion and diligence to keep Tennessee in the Union — a battle he ultimately lost.  Despite constant threats to him and his family and being labeled a traitor in his beloved South, Johnson defied his state and became the only Southern Senator who refused to join the Confederacy.  In the North, Johnson’s actions made him a courageous hero; back in Tennessee, he was burned in effigy and his hometown of Greeneville erected a banner over it’s main street which read “Andrew Johnson, Traitor”.

In March 1862, Johnson was appointed the Military Governor of Tennessee by President Lincoln and given the rank of brigadier general.  Johnson returned to his home state, now occupied by Union forces, with orders to establish law and order and return Tennessee to federal authority.  With virtually dictatorial powers, Johnson slowly and bravely restored order to Tennessee by shutting down anti-Union newspapers, seizing railroads and bridges, arresting priests for sermons that sympathized with the Confederate cause, enacting martial law, requiring state officeholders to swear oaths of allegiance to the federal government, levying and collecting taxes, and gaining a measure of support in the state by urging Lincoln to exempt Tennessee from the Emancipation Proclamation.  Johnson didn’t rule from afar or hide from a disgruntled population, either — he valiantly remained in Nashville, which was frequently under siege by Confederate forces, declaring that “I am no military man but any one who talks of surrender I will shoot.”

In 1864, President Lincoln urged Republicans to dump Vice President Hannibal Hamlin from Lincoln’s re-election bid and form a coalition party (the National Union Party) with pro-Union Democrats.  With an eye to the future and the need for quick national  reconciliation Lincoln dumped Hamlin in favor of Johnson, partly as a reward for Johnson’s unwavering loyalty to the Union and partly to balance the coalition ticket with a Democrat who just happened to be a Southerner.

Johnson’s Vice Presidency got off to an inauspicious start.  Ill from typhoid fever, Johnson took a few shots of whiskey prior to his inauguration in order to get through the long ceremonies.  Unfortunately, the effect was a long, drunken rant against aristocrats and wealthy businessmen and politicians as Johnson spoke to the Senate chamber (Vice Presidents gave their own inaugural addresses at that time) which ended only when outgoing Vice President Hamlin yanked on Johnson’s coattails and steered him away from the speaker’s lectern.  Lincoln was embarrassed and the nation was worried that their new Vice President might be an alcoholic.

The nation’s worries grew larger less than a week after the happy news that the Confederates had surrendered at Appomattox and ended the Civil War and not quite six weeks after Johnson became Vice President.  Shortly after his alcohol-infused outburst at his inauguration, the New York World worriedly said of Johnson, “To think, that one frail life stands between this insolent, clownish creature and the Presidency.”  On April 15, 1865, the assassination of Abraham Lincoln led to Andrew Johnson becoming the 17th President of the United States.  Johnson’s ascension to the Presidency was not what anyone wanted or hoped for, including Johnson himself.  A stunned nation suddenly found itself with a very different leader as its chief executive.  The thoughts of many Americans echoed the words that Benjamin F. Butler would later say, “By murder most foul, he succeeded to the Presidency, and is the elect of an assassin to that high office, and not of the people.”

Johnson’s Presidency was dominated by the challenges of Reconstruction, the opposition of Radical Republicans in Congress opposed to Johnson’s conciliatory policy towards the conquered South, and his staunch refusal to recognize the basic human rights of blacks whom Johnson saw as an inferior race.  Johnson had a long history of vivid racism, punctuated by his bombastic speaking style.  Among his comments on African-Americans, Johnson had said “You can’t get rid of the negro except by holding him in slavery” and asked “If you liberate the negro, what will be the next step?  It would place every splay-footed, bandy-shanked, humpbacked negro in the country upon an equality with the poor white man.”

As his unpopularity in the country and in the Capitol grew, Johnson faced an unprecedented challenge from the Congress.  In 1867, Congress passed the Tenure of Office Act, which prohibited the President from firing his Cabinet members without the approval of the Senate.  On paper, this meant that the President not only required Senate confirmation of his appointments, but Senate confirmation of any potential change in his government’s top officials.  In reality, the Tenure of Office Act was a clear provocation of Johnson’s authority, basically daring Johnson to violate the law and face impeachment.  It was a legislative coup d’état.  Johnson didn’t respond well to challenges; he quickly violated the act, firing Secretary of War (and favorite of the Radical Republicans) Edwin Stanton for “disloyalty”.  Every bit as stubborn as the President, Stanton barricaded himself in the War Department and the Congress impeached Johnson on February 24, 1868.

The first President to be impeached (Bill Clinton would join the dubious club 130 years later), Andrew Johnson prepared for a trial in the Senate.  Needing a two-thirds majority to convict Johnson and remove him from office, Republicans worked zealously to secure the 36 votes necessary for conviction.  Facing eleven articles of impeachment (nine more than President Clinton was tried on in 1999), Johnson narrowly escaped conviction and removal from office.  The Senate voted 35-19 to convict Johnson on three articles of impeachment, but as they were 1 guilty vote short of a two-thirds majority, Johnson was able to remain in office and finish out his term.  After the first three articles of impeachment successfully went Johnson’s way, the other eight articles were abandoned and the case was closed.  Johnson’s Presidency was salvaged by seven courageous Republican Senators who risked their careers by voting with Democrats to acquit President Johnson.  Those seven Senators — William P. Fessenden (Maine), Joseph S. Fowler (Tennessee), James W. Grimes (Iowa), John B. Henderson (Missouri), Edmund G. Ross (Kansas), Lyman Trumbull (Illinois), and Peter Van Winkle (West Virginia) — were later lauded in John F. Kennedy’s Profiles of Courage for acts of Senatorial bravery.

Andrew Johnson cried upon hearing the news of his exoneration.  While his Presidency was salvaged, he had little real power and no support remaining.  Like John Tyler before him, Johnson was also a President without a party and though he hoped to seek election in his own right in 1868, no party was willing to nominate him as their candidate so the former tailor returned to Tennessee, declaring that “I intend to devote the remainder of my life to the vindication of my own character.” 

It was his return home, however, that changed his spirits forever.  When Johnson refused to support the Confederacy and remained the only Southern Senator in the United States Senate during the Civil War, Johnson’s hometown of Greeneville had famously adorned its main street with a banner that read “Andrew Johnson, Traitor”.  Now, as the former President rode back into Greeneville, he found that the burning effigies were gone, the insults were no longer flying, and the banner over his hometown’s main street said something entirely different: “Andrew Johnson, Patriot”.

Johnson remained active in local and state Democratic politics in his final years and in 1875, he was rewarded with what he considered the highest honor of his life.  The Tennessee Legislature once again elected Johnson to the United States Senate.  Not only was Johnson returning to Washington as the only former President to serve in the Senate, but in one of history’s great coincidences, he was returning to the very legislative body that had nearly ended his political career and removed him from office less than a decade earlier.  When Johnson learned that he had been elected to the Senate in 1875, he told his family, “I’d rather have this information than to learn that I had been elected President of the United States.  Thank God for the vindication.”

Sadly, Johnson’s resurgent political career didn’t last long.  Returning home to Tennessee during a Senate recess, Johnson suffered a series of strokes in the final days of July 1875 while visiting his daughter in Carter County, Tennessee.  On July 31, 1875, the former President and loyal Unionist died at the age of 66.  In his will, Johnson requested one last act of patriotic devotion:  “Pillow my head with the Constitution of my country.  Let the flag of the Nation be my winding sheet.”  With his body blanketed in the American flag and his head resting on a copy of the United States Constitution inside of his pine casket, Andrew Johnson was buried under a willow tree on a hill he personally chose in what is now known as Andrew Johnson National Cemetery in Greeneville, Tennessee. 

The two opposing Presidents of the Civil War both spoke respectfully of Andrew Johnson during the great war between the states.  Confederate President Jefferson Davis ignored Johnson’s stubborn opposition against the Confederacy and recognized Johnson’s connection with the common people.  “One of the people by birth, he remained so by conviction, continually referring to his origin…He was indifferent to money and careless of praise or censure.”  Prior to choosing Johnson as his running mate in 1864, Abraham Lincoln understood his sacrifices: “No man has a right to judge Andrew Johnson in any respect who has not suffered as much and done as much as he for the Nation’s sake.”



Theodore Roosevelt was a shooting star — 5’8” of barely controlled frenzy.  An energetic workaholic, familyaholic, and lifeaholic who lived every day of his relatively short life to its fullest and savored each and every battle throughout 60 busy years on Earth.  As Thomas Riley Marshall, Woodrow Wilson’s Vice President, said, “Death had to take Roosevelt while he was sleeping, for if he had been awake, there would have been a fight.” 

Every milestone in Roosevelt’s life was reached at a younger age than almost anyone else in American history.  Elected to the New York State Assembly at 23; a delegate to the Republican National Convention at 25; a deputy sheriff in the Dakota Territory at 26; an unsuccessful candidate for Mayor of New York City at 28; appointed to the U.S. Civil Service Commission by President Benjamin Harrison at 31; elected president of the New York City Police Board to clean up corruption in the police force at the age of 37; and appointed Assistant Secretary of the Navy by President McKinley before resigning to volunteer for the Spanish-American War and then returning from Cuba as a war hero to launch a successful campaign for Governor of New York, all before his 40th birthday in October 1898.

Initially supported by New York’s Republican party boss, Thomas Platt, Governor Roosevelt quickly distanced himself from Boss Platt by ignoring his advice and pushing through an agenda aimed at reform in government, and laws protecting worker’s rights.  After the Governor signed a new law implementing a state tax on New York’s corporations, Boss Platt worked hard to get Roosevelt nominated as Vice President on President McKinley’s ticket in 1900, mostly to get Roosevelt out of New York state politics and into an office where he couldn’t do any damage — the weak Vice Presidency of the late-19th/early-20th century.  Roosevelt was not interested in leaving Albany to take the boring job of Vice President, but changed his mind after the encouragement of his friend, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts, who felt that it would expand Roosevelt’s profile nationally and help set up a future bid for the Presidency.  McKinley and Roosevelt easily won the 1900 election, and Roosevelt kept himself occupied during the campaign by speaking in 567 cities and towns throughout 24 of the 45 states.

Less than a year later, 42-year-old Theodore Roosevelt, was President of the United States (and is still the youngest President in American history), thrust into the Presidency when an anarchist named Leon Czolgosz assassinated President McKinley in Buffalo.  At his side as he moved into the White House was his wife, Edith, and his six children.  Roosevelt leaped into the role of President and had fun with the job while continuing to live what he called “the strenuous life”.  For the rest of that “strenuous life” — including a “retirement” which was a retirement in name only — Roosevelt continued to practice politics, hunt, look for new challenges, write, and fight.  But there was one battle that Theodore Roosevelt could not fight and would not face — and it started on the saddest Valentine’s Day of all-time.

•••

Valentine’s Day wasn’t always a tragic day for Theodore Roosevelt.  On February 14, 1880, Roosevelt announced his engagement to Alice Hathaway Lee, a beautiful girl from Massachusetts three years younger than he was.  Theodore and Alice had met on October 18, 1878 when Theodore, a student at Harvard, encountered her at the home of Richard Saltonstall — Alice’s neighbor and Roosevelt’s classmate and friend.  Roosevelt was immediately taken by Alice’s beauty and intelligence, writing that “As long as I live, I shall never forget how sweetly she looked and how prettily she greeted me.”  A month later, he was convinced that he wanted to marry her, but it took him much longer to convince her.  He proposed in June 1879 and Alice finally said yes at the beginning of 1880.  On February 13, 1880, Roosevelt spent the day and night with Alice’s family before returning home to Cambridge, Massachusetts to announce their engagement.  That night, as he often did, Roosevelt wrote in his pocket diary about his feelings for Alice:

She is so marvelously sweet, and pure and loveable and pretty that I seem to love her more and more every time I see her, though I love her so much now that I really can not love her more.  I do not think ever a man loved a woman more than I love her; for a year and a quarter now I have never (even when hunting) gone to sleep or waked up without thinking of her; and I doubt if an hour has passed that I have not thought of her.  And now I can scarcely realize that I can hold her in my arms and kiss her and caress her and love her as much as I choose.”


Theodore and Alice married on his 22nd birthday, October 27, 1880 at the home of Alice’s parents in Brookline, Massachusetts.  Among the guests in attendance was Edith Kermit Carow, who later became Roosevelt’s second wife and the nation’s First Lady.  The newly married couple spent their wedding night in Springfield, Massachusetts and a two-week honeymoon at the Roosevelt home in Oyster Bay, New York before Theodore plunged right back into his work.  Despite his busy, frenetic lifestyle, Theodore’s love for Alice never wavered.  He wrote her long, loving letters and spent as much time as possible doting on his young wife.  As his political career took off and he served in the New York State Assembly, politicians who called at his home in New York City were charmed by Alice, and Theodore’s feelings for her were as strong as they were during their courtship in Cambridge.  As the Roosevelts celebrated their third wedding anniversary in October 1883, Alice was pregnant with their first child and Roosevelt was preparing a run for Speaker of the New York State Assembly.

Running for the speakership was tough work for a 25-year-old that had spent barely two years in the Assembly, but Roosevelt and some of his supporters felt that he had the votes necessary to win the Speaker’s chair.  This campaign required Roosevelt to spend even more time in Albany lining up votes, and he would rush home whenever possible to visit his pregnant wife.  Alice felt lonely at times, but understood Theodore’s drive and ambition.  She only saw her husband on weekends and Roosevelt tried to help Alice out by having her stay with his mother, Martha “Mittie” Bulloch Roosevelt, and his sisters, Corinne Roosevelt Robinson (who had recently had a baby herself) and Anna “Bamie” Roosevelt Cowles, at the family home in New York City on West 57th Street.  It was difficult at times for Alice, but she loved her husband’s family and supported her husband’s ambitions, and tried to bear the separation cheerfully. 

The separation wasn’t easy for Roosevelt, either.  On February 6, 1884, he wrote to Alice, “How did I hate to leave my bright, sunny little love yesterday afternoon!  I love you and long for you all the time, and oh so tenderly; doubly tenderly now, my sweetest little wife.  I just long for Friday evening when I shall be with you again.”  Roosevelt had lost the race for Speaker, but immediately threw himself into an investigation of corruption within the government of New York City.  In Albany on February 11, Roosevelt adjourned his committee’s investigation for a week and headed home to New York City for the birth of his first child.  Arriving there on February 12th, it appeared as if Alice was still a few days away from having the baby.  Roosevelt left her in the care of Bamie since his mother, Mittie, seemed to be suffering from a heavy cold, and then rushed back to Albany to work on a bill which proposed to give more executive power to the Mayor of New York City.  At the Capitol the next morning, Roosevelt received a telegram notifying him that Alice had given birth to a baby girl the previous night.  The telegram noted that Alice was doing “only fairly well”, but Roosevelt chalked that up to the difficulties of a young mother’s first delivery in the rough 1880’s.  Roosevelt continued to try to get some work done for a few more hours before he planned to catch a train back to New York City to greet his loving wife and his new daughter.

•••

Just a few hours later, Theodore Roosevelt was on a train heading to New York City, but the joyous visage of the brand-new father had been replaced by a worrisome and “worn” look cemented upon his face after receiving a second telegram in Albany.  The contents of this telegram are lost to history, but they caused Roosevelt to rush home to his 22-year-old wife and their newborn daughter.  In perfect weather, the train ride from Albany-to-New York City took five hours in 1884, and the weather on February 13th was not perfect.  It was foggy and cold and Roosevelt finally arrived at Grand Central Station at about 10:30 PM, rushing home through the foggy New York City streets and finding the home at 6 West 57th Street dark other than a gaslight on the third floor.

Upstairs, Theodore’s young wife and the mother of his newborn daughter, was gravely ill.  The childbirth was rough, but Alice Roosevelt was also suffering from undiagnosed Bright’s Disease, a terminal illness during the time period, and an illness which was rapidly causing Alice’s kidneys to fail.  Theodore held his  love in his arms, barely noticing the new life that she brought into the world at the risk of losing her own.  Alice fell in-and-out of consciousness, only sometimes recognizing the man at her bedside.  As a child, Theodore Roosevelt was sickly, pale, and asthmatic and through sheer willpower and, yes, “strenuous” exercise, he built his body into a strong, robust, athletic man as solid as the bust that pays tribute to him today on Mount Rushmore.  As February 14th — the fourth anniversary of his engagement to Alice — began, Theodore tried to summon that ability to conquer poor health in order to save the love of his life.

Downstairs, Theodore’s 48-year-old mother, Mittie, did not have a bad cold.  She had typhoid fever, and in his rush to attempt to help nurse his wife back to health — if only with the ineffective tools of hope — Roosevelt had hardly noticed that his mother was also near-death.  At 3:00 AM on February 14, 1884, the sadness in the Roosevelt home at 6 West 57th Street turned to devastation, when Mittie died shortly after Theodore kissed her goodbye.  Before Theodore had arrived home from Albany, his brother Elliott left their mother’s home after telling Corinne, “There is a curse on this house.  Mother is dying, and Alice is dying too.”  As Theodore walked back upstairs to attend to Alice, he agreed with his brother’s statement:  “There IS a curse on this house.”

Alice tried to fight, but her kidneys had failed her, childbirth had weakened her, and the melancholy mood in the house couldn’t help to strengthen anybody’s spirits.  Theodore continued holding Alice in his arms and that’s where she was when she died at 2:00 PM on the fourth anniversary of their engagement announcement, less than two days after the birth of their still-unnamed daughter.  Since he first cast his eyes upon Alice’s face in 1878, Theodore Roosevelt had filled pages of his diary by writing about her nearly as often as he thought about her.  He noted the simplest expressions, the smallest acts of recognition, the quietest smiles, the loudest silences, and every action that resulted in a memory that they could replay again-and-again in the future that they had planned together.  In his ever-present pocket diary on February 14, 1884, Theodore Roosevelt simply wrote an “X” above one striking sentence:  “The light has gone out of my life.”

•••

Two days later, the dazed widower sat expressionless in his pew at the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City as the two identical rosewood caskets of his mother and wife stood side-by-side at the altar.  The day after the deaths, the New York State Assembly paid tribute by adjourning in sympathy after speakers eulogized the women and expressed support for their stricken colleague.  In the days that followed, Theodore Roosevelt withdrew, unable to process the heavy pain he was feeling and showing no interest in his newborn baby, christened Alice Lee after her late mother.  Friends worried about Roosevelt’s mindframe and newspapers predicted that he would never recover from the blow he had suffered. 

We know now that he did recover.  Just 27 years old when he lost his wife and his mother on the same day in the same house, Roosevelt couldn’t even bear to say the name of his new daughter because it reminded him of her mother.  Instead of “Alice Lee”, he called her “Baby Lee” in her infancy and turned her care over to Bamie so that he could lose himself in the Dakota Territory.  There he remained for two years, working as a cattle rancher and deputy sheriff, writing and recovering from his sudden, tremendously heartbreaking loss.  He returned to New York in October 1886 and re-launched his political career, not stopping until he handed the Presidency over to hand-picked successor William Howard Taft in 1908.  Even then, he was still involved, challenging Taft for the Republican nomination in 1912, bolting the party when Taft was nominated and running as a third-party candidate that fall, hunting, writing books, and preparing for another run for the Presidency when he died suddenly in January 1919.

Theodore Roosevelt recovered and made history, but the pain that he felt probably never dissipated.  It was also never again mentioned.  Two days after the funeral, he wrote a short biography of Alice in his diary, ending “For joy or sorrow, my life has now been lived out.”  Roosevelt’s biographer, Edmund Morris, wrote that “Like a lion obsessively trying to drag a spear from its flank, Roosevelt set about dislodging Alice Lee from his soul.  Nostalgia, a weakness to which he was abnormally vulnerable, could be indulged if it was pleasant, but if painful it must be suppressed, ‘until the memory is too dead to throb.’”  Alice Hathaway Lee’s existence may have crossed his mind or remained in his heart, but her name never again passed through his lips.  Their daughter — Alice’s namesake — entered adulthood without ever hearing her father speak of her mother.  It was simply too painful for this, probably the bravest of Presidents.  Following his Presidency, Roosevelt wrote his Autobiography, which was detailed and thorough, but he didn’t mention his first wife even once.  Letters were destroyed, photographs were were burned, and Roosevelt’s only method of coping with her absence was pretending that she was never there in the first place.  He once wrote of Alice that “I did not think I could win her, and I went nearly crazy at the mere thought of losing her.”  Once he did lose her, he certainly lost a part of himself. 

Immediately following Alice’s death, Theodore told a friend that he was “beyond healing and time will never change me in that respect”.  Roosevelt remarried in 1886 and had five more children, but his silence about Alice’s impact on his life is just as striking as the words he wrote about her while she was alive.  In August 1974, President Richard Nixon — one of Roosevelt’s successors and biggest admirers — resigned from the Presidency and in his final speech as President, to White House staff gathered in the East Room, quoted from one of only two references that Roosevelt made to Alice following her death:

"She was beautiful in face and form, and lovelier still in spirit; As a flower she grew, and as a fair young flower she died. Her life had been always in the sunshine; there had never come to her a single sorrow; and none ever knew her who did not love and revere her for the bright, sunny temper and her saintly unselfishness. Fair, pure, and joyous as a maiden; loving , tender, and happy. As a young wife; when she had just become a mother, when her life seemed to be just begun, and when the years seemed so bright before her—then, by a strange and terrible fate, death came to her. And when my heart’s dearest died, the light went from my life forever."


Theodore Roosevelt went on to achieve his ambitions and realize great success, but his tribute to Alice bears witness to his pain and gives extra symbolism to the lion’s last words before his heart gave out in 1919:  “Please put out the light.”

THE IRON SHEIK IS TRAPPED IN A CHARACTER HE CREATED

image

One of my best friends, Chris, is commonly referred to as a “shock jock”, although everyone referred to as a “shock jock” quickly and dismissively rolls their eyes at such a clichéd label. Since before we even became friends, Chris has hosted successful and controversial radio shows in places such as Syracuse, Wichita, Sacramento, San Antonio, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Portland, Oregon, Atlanta, and, currently, Cincinnati.

The KiddChris Show is not for everyone. It is brutal, straightforward, random, offensive, and, more often than not, a four-hour-long inside joke. Since late-2001, I have been involved with Chris’s radio show on various levels, alternating between being intensely involved on a daily basis (in Sacramento), making infrequent appearances and/or helping behind-the-scenes (in San Antonio, Philadelphia/Pittsburgh), and not being involved on pretty much any level whatsoever (my current status). Through the radio show, I’ve met some very interesting people, found myself in unusual situations, and experienced some very surreal things, but nothing was as unusual or surreal and no one was as interesting of a character as the man who I spent the better part of three days talking to, listening to, and helping out in May 2006 — a man who many people know as the Iron Sheik.

In May 2006, I caught a flight for a trip to Philadelphia thanks to my friends at CBS Radio and the legendary rock station that Chris worked at, WYSP. Chris’s show was wildly successful in Philadelphia and had a bigger, more fervent fanbase in the Philly area than it had experienced in any other city it had been broadcast in. Philadelphia fans are viciously loyal as many people who follow sports know quite well (Philly is where Santa Claus was once heckled with boos and then pummeled by a barrage of batteries thrown by Eagles fans). When it comes to radio, the fans are just as loyal and crazy and, to be honest, kind of creepy. They are so loyal and crazy and, to be honest, kind of creepy that Chris’s Philly listeners became known as simply “The Underbelly”. The Underbelly helped make Chris’s show one of the top talk shows on-the-air in Philly, and I headed back to the City of Brotherly Love for Chris’s big birthday celebration at a local bar that would feature a live broadcast of the show, comedy, music, and the Iron Sheik.

As a little kid, I remembered the Iron Sheik as the terrible Iranian bad guy on WWF television with wrestling boots which curled into sharp points and made him look like he stole the shoes of a violent, sadistic elf. I remembered that prior to his matches, the Sheik would proudly wave the Iranian flag and stand at attention with his manager, Classy Freddie Blassie, while his tag team partner Nikolai Volkoff sang the Soviet national anthem. After Volkoff’s rendition of the Soviet anthem was finished, the Sheik would inevitably take the microphone and amid a chorus of boos, yell, “Iran: number one! Russia: number one! USA: Hack-poot!” as he spit with disdain. I don’t remember how Iran and Russia could both be number one, but I wasn’t going to argue with the Iron Sheik in the 1980’s because he had pointy boots and he beat Bob Backlund with the Camel Clutch to win the WWF Championship in Madison Square Garden. I remember that detail because the Iron Sheik mentions it. Constantly. Each and every day, over twenty years later, the Iron Sheik seems to have an internal clock which prompts him every half-hour to say in his eternally broken English: “Madison Square Garden! Most famous arena in the world! I beat the Bob Backlund, the Howdy-Doody look-a-like Bob Backlund, with the Camel Clutch! I humbled him and won the Double-yoo Double-yoo Heff Championship! Most famous arena in the world, New York City!”.

Some people abuse the exclamation point when writing, and I do my best not to use that form of punctuation unless absolutely necessary. In the case of the Iron Sheik, it is constantly necessary. The Iron Sheik speaks in capital letters and exclamation points. Even now — long after his glory days — he is always speaking in sound bites, as if he is cutting one more big promotional monologue for one last big match. The Sheik has likely wrestled his last match. He is still a draw to wrestling fans on the minor league independent wrestling circuit, but it is because of his appearances on radio shows like those belonging to my friend or to Howard Stern, or because of the viral videos on YouTube of an intoxicated or otherwise under-the-influence Sheik profanely insulting and threatening former pro wrestling colleagues. The sad truth is that the Iron Sheik is comic relief, and probably never was much more than that to wrestling fans and non-wrestling fans. He was, and is, a real-life cartoon character. And, today — much like he was when I spent time with him in 2006 — the Iron Sheik is a man in his mid-60’s who can barely walk but who is shuttled around from one place to the next to make a dollar for himself and five dollars for the people who take advantage of him; a man who lives paycheck-to-paycheck despite always working; a man who is best known for his long career in a fake sport despite the fact that he was an accomplished real athlete; and a man who people laugh at even though they think they are laughing with him.

In just three days, I realized that he is all of those things, but he is most importantly a man. He is not a cartoon character and there is nothing funny about the man behind the Iron Sheik character. The guy I watched on TV waving an Iranian flag as professional wrestling’s “evil foreigner” of the 1980’s — the symbolic Ayatollah Khomeini to Hulk Hogan’s Ronald Reagan — is a patriotic U.S. citizen who loves his adopted country, a country he immigrated to forty years ago. In the process, he embarked upon the quintessential American journey: he found a calling, he became rich, he became famous, and, of course, he lost everything. He lost his money, he lost his fame, he lost his family, and, somewhere along the way, he lost himself.

The Iron Sheik really seems to believe that he always has to be the Iron Sheik. I think that he forgot how to be Khosrow Vaziri, the man born in 1943 in Tehran. The Sheik gets paid to be the Sheik, but beneath the crazy, surreal surface that gets on the radio or on YouTube and calls Hulk Hogan a “Hollywood blonde jobroni” and threatens to “humble” former wrestling colleagues by raping them is an old man who is sad and tired and who nobody truly knows. He doesn’t wave an Iranian flag; he wears a gold medal that he legitimately won at the 1971 U.S. Amateur Athletic Union Greco-Roman wrestling tournament. He doesn’t praise the Ayatollah Khomeini while calling Iran the “greatest country in world”; he talks about guarding the Shah of Iran, praying for his family after the Iranian Revolution and working as an assistant coach to the U.S. Olympic team in 1972 and 1976. He doesn’t wear curly, pointy boots or talk about breaking someone’s back with the Camel Clutch; he walks gingerly with the assistance of a cane in his New Balance sneakers and on knees and hips that need to be replaced due to decades of punishment. Most of all, he doesn’t yell non-sensically about humbling his enemies or talk with disdain about the United States (“hack-poot!”); he quietly talks about being a Muslim, being tired, about wanting to be back home in Atlanta, and, he sadly reminisces about his daughter, who was brutally murdered by her boyfriend in 2003.

And, yes, even when reflecting quietly and trying to remember about life as Khosrow, the man behind the Iron Sheik also still reminds us about beating Bob Backlund for the “Double-yoo Double-yoo Heff” championship in “Madison Square Garden! Most famous arena in the world!”. And when that happens, he is back to being the Iron Sheik.

I don’t know if he loses himself in his character because he wants to escape, or if he loses himself in his character because that’s the only place he can find himself. Either way, I think that the Iron Sheik character is pretty much the furthest thing away from who Khosrow Vaziri truly is, and that is exactly why he spends so much time there.

•••

I already knew that I was going to meet the Iron Sheik when I flew to Philadelphia in May 2006. It was the first time I had been on an airplane in quite some time, and as my flight flew into darkness and we headed from day-to-night all I could think about was how it seems like the sun sets more quickly when you’re above the clouds.

There was a lot of excitement about my trip because I was visiting friends, seeing Philadelphia (a city I had always wanted to visit) for the first time, and looking forward to doing a couple of days of good radio before partying at my friend Chris’s big birthday celebration. I didn’t think much about the Iron Sheik. Like many people, I had largely forgotten about the Sheik until Chris recently began having him call-in to the radio show as a guest. The Sheik was entertaining, but also seemed completely out of his mind 88% of the time. The other 12% of the time, I just couldn’t understand what he was saying. I figured that meeting the Iron Sheik would be memorable, but for all of the wrong reasons.

My flight arrived in Philadelphia just before 10:00 PM, and I quickly claimed my luggage and turned my cell phone on to find out where another friend of mine, Thomas, was waiting for me. Thomas answered and said that he was at a restaurant and that there weren’t any interns from WYSP available to pick me up from the airport, either. Thomas said that I could just catch a cab and WYSP would reimburse me, so I said I would do that and asked where I should go. He said, “We’re at a restaurant called LaScala’s on Chestnut with the Iron Sheik. Meet us here — and hurry up, the Sheik is waiting for you.”

I assured Thomas that I would hurry and after hanging up, I thought, “The Sheik is waiting for you”? That sounded almost ominous, as if I were late for a meeting with Osama bin Laden. “The Sheik is waiting for you”. I definitely hoped that the NSA wasn’t listening in to cell phone conversations at Philadelphia International Airport at that very moment. I also wondered why the hell the Iron Sheik was waiting for me — a guy he had never met, spoken to, or heard of. I found a cab driver and told him where I needed to get to, and that I needed to get there quickly. I had been looking forward to taking in some of the sights of Philadelphia — one of the most history-filled cities in the United States and the birthplace of the Constitution — but not like the tour I got from my taxi ride from airport to the center city district. I’m not sure if the lights and sights of the city were racing past us, or if we were racing past the lights and sights of the city, but the cab driver followed through on his promise to get me to LaScala’s quickly despite Philadelphia’s old, narrow streets. The impact of seeing Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell is certainly diminished when you drive past them in a cab at 50 mph over cobblestone. Nonetheless, the cab driver got me to LaScala’s as quickly as possible and after giving him a nice tip for taking me on a rocket ride through Philly, I headed inside.

LaScala’s looks like the last place you would meet a professional wrestler. It is a nice upscale Italian restaurant in the Center City neighborhood of downtown Philadelphia and they were nice enough to stay open later than usual for our visit that night. When I walked in, I saw Chris and Thomas at a big table with some people from the radio station WYSP, an avid listener/friend of the show named Constantine, our friend “the Reverend” Bob Levy, and, of course, the Iron Sheik. The Sheik was accompanied by his “business manager” whose name was “Double P”. Double P was, as you might imagine, somewhat shady, very sweaty, and nearly bursting through his button-up shirt with a large stomach.

The Iron Sheik was finishing up a large plate of pasta and drinking beer. He had a prominent beer-belly that seemed to be working against him as he attacked his food, and he had a replica of the WWE World Heavyweight Championship belt draped over his shoulder. Around his neck was a necklace with a medal attached to what looked like a cross made out of yellow electrical tape. The medal was dull and tarnished by age and years of handling, but when I looked at it later I realized that it was a gold medal from the 1971 AAU Greco-Roman Wrestling Championship. That’s not professional wrestling, by the way. That is real, amateur, Olympic-style wrestling. In the United States in 1971, there were no better Greco-Roman wrestlers in the 180.5 pound weight class than Khosrow Vaziri.

Oddly, the Sheik also seemed to think he was in Pittsburgh. Not just at the dinner, either. Over the next couple of days, he either forgot he was in Philadelphia, thought he was in Pittsburgh, or just didn’t care. At dinner, the Sheik wore a Pittsburgh Steelers beanie and a shirt paying tribute to Pittsburgh’s Kurt Angle, a former Olympic gold medalist and WWE wrestler. Many times throughout the next few days, the Sheik mentioned how much he loved Pittsburgh and Kurt Angle and Bruno Sammartino (another wrestling legend and Pittsburgh native). People corrected him many times over the next few days or pointed out that he was in Philadelphia, not Pittsburgh, but the Sheik kept mentioning Pittsburgh and I could never figure out why. He was in Philly at that moment, currently lives in Atlanta, spent most of his years in the U.S. in Minneapolis, and was born in Tehran, but the Iron Sheik just seemed to love Pittsburgh.

The Sheik could have left the dinner earlier, but Chris had told him that I wanted to meet him, so he said he would stay until I arrived. When I walked in to LaScala’s, the Sheik stood up and said, “This must be An-TONEE!”. He never called me “Anthony”; it was always “An-TONEE!”, and always with the exclamation point. When there are a lot of people around, the Iron Sheik still speaks as if he is trying to be heard over the boos of 23,000 in Madison Square Garden. I laughed and walked over to greet the Sheik before I even said hello to my friends because this poor guy was 63 years old — 50 years of which were spent beating his own body up in amateur and professional wrestling — had spent all day traveling, and yet was nice enough to hang out a little longer because Chris said I wanted to meet him.

When I shook his hand, I expected him to give me some tough-guy handshake. I knew he had a legitimate background in amateur wrestling and spent years wrestling professionally, so I figured he would give me a strong handshake like my grandfather used to give me. The kind of handshake that makes you wish you had just gone for the fist-bump. Instead, I was greeted with a soft, gentle handshake. He barely even squeezed my hand. I thought that maybe he had an injury or some sort of arthritic condition from years in the ring, but he told me later that the gentle handshake is kind of like a secret handshake of sorts amongst professional wrestlers. It’s called a “worker’s handshake”. In professional wrestling, the wrestlers basically put their safety in the hands of the people they work with and trust them to take care of them and not hurt them in the ring. With the gentle “worker’s handshake”, one wrestler or “worker” is telling his colleague “I work gently. I will not hurt you. You can trust that I will take care of you and protect your body in the ring.” I found that very interesting.

I also found it interesting that the Iron Sheik is very famous. People walking by LaScala’s would do a double-take when looking into the restaurant and knock on the window when they realized that they were looking at the Iron Sheik. The Sheik was definitely big in professional wrestling in the 1980’s and even appeared on Saturday morning cartoons, but I was surprised by how many people almost instantly recognized him. He would wave happily when he was recognized by fans, as if their recognition of him validated every silly thing he ever had to do in the ring. I think the Sheik was genuinely excited to be back in the spotlight, even if it was a much smaller spotlight than he was used to in the 1980’s.

Although I’d like to think that the Iron Sheik waited at LaScala’s later than he intended in order to meet me, that ended up not being completely true. It turns out that the Sheik likes beer, and at LaScala’s the radio station was paying for the beer. The Sheik also likes “medicine”, as he calls it. This love of “medicine” actually got him fired from the World Wrestling Federation in 1987 when he was arrested on drug charges along with on-screen rival Jim Duggan. The Sheik has struggled throughout the years with substance abuse problems, and this is why I started feeling sorry for him after I met him.

As funny as he could be, and as outrageous as the things are that he says, the truth is that he is under the influence of a lot of things when he says them. He is not Khosrow Vaziri, the quiet, proud Muslim. He is the Iron Sheik. He is the guy with the pointy boots and the curly mustache and the Iranian flag. He goes into character and cuts promos and gets lost in these random, hysterical, bizarre monologues because it is what the fans have always expected him to do. The Iron Sheik is never very far away from Khosrow Vaziri, but Khosrow is definitely still there, too. You can see it in his eyes when he starts to get lost in the Iron Sheik character. You can see that he would be ready to retire the gimmick and quit being a cartoon character if he knew how to be Khosrow all the time. You can see that he just doesn’t know how to do that.

And that’s why he needs his “medicine”, which is why he was still at LaScala’s when I arrived. Because someone was tracking down some “medicine” for him. So, until then, he was part-Khosrow, part-Sheik, and drank his beer and ate his pasta and took photos with us while regaling us with stories about life on the road.

When the “medicine man” arrived with his “medicine”, he got lost in the “medicine” and then got lost in the Sheik character again. Then he left. Dinner with the Sheik was over and I was mesmerized by this man and this character with all these stories and who had been all these different places. In the short time I spent with him that night, he seemed to be so many different people that I was fascinated.

Come to think of it, maybe that’s why he thought he was in Pittsburgh. If I didn’t know who I was, I wouldn’t know where I am, either.

•••

Attempt for a moment to imagine this: You are standing on a 20’ x 20’ stage surrounded by 23,000 people screaming at you, booing you, reacting to who you are and what you are doing. You are wearing spandex tights and shiny boots, but you are not wearing a shirt. A spotlight is shining on you and you are inciting this crowd, eliciting exactly the type of reaction that you want to receive from them. You are the ringmaster in your own personal circus and the people who have their eyes on you have paid to see you pretend to fight another person dressed in gaudy underwear for anywhere from 15 to 60 minutes.

You are in control. You hold 23,000 people in your hand in the most famous arena in the world, Madison Square Garden. You are on the stage in the biggest city in the United States. At that moment, more people are watching you wave an Iranian flag and curse their hero than in any musical theater on Broadway. You are in control and it is addictive. It is a drug that you love, that you seek, that you need. It defines you and always will, no matter what you’ve done in the past, and no matter what you’ll do in the future. But, for that moment, in that arena, in that city, you are in control.

Your job is to lie to people and to trick people. You are surrounded by real-life cartoon characters. Some of them wear masks, some of them wear facepaint, some of them are incredibly muscular specimens, some of them are just freakishly fat. Some are great actors, some are great athletes, and some are neither actors nor athletes. These are your co-workers. These are your colleagues. When you work with them, though, they are considered your opponent.

Your job is to make it appear as if you are trying to hurt your opponent as badly as possible at the exact same time that you are actually trying to protect your opponent from getting hurt. Your goal is to pin the opponent for three seconds or make him submit to a referee that isn’t sanctioned by any athletic commission anywhere in the world. Your goal is to win every match, yet there are no standings and nobody keeps a record of who wins and loses.

Your job is to make people believe that you are solving a problem that you have with someone else in a 20’ x 20’ wrestling ring, breaking numerous criminal laws while your body somehow breaks the laws of physics in the process. You bounce off of ropes that are not actually ropes, but steel cables wrapped in rubber which have no give. You jump off turnbuckles that have no springs. You land flat on your back on a thick piece of plywood covered with a thin piece of canvas which is only there for aesthetic purposes. The plywood hurts and it has no give; it is constructed on top of steel beams which are supported by steel columns.

You wear a championship belt that you didn’t really win. You don’t get paid less money for losing. You sometimes have a manager who doesn’t actually manage anything, but might help you cheat at something that has no legitimate rulebook. There is a formula that you rarely deviate from. You will spend your match pretending that your left leg or left arm or left something is injured. You will try to injure something on the left side of your opponent’s body. You and your co-workers never hurt the right sides of your bodies for some reason, but no one really notices that.

You “sell” your apparent injury to the fans because selling results in money. You tell a story every night that builds up to a big conclusion because good storytelling results in money. Sometimes, if the situation calls for it, you will bleed because bleeding equals money, red equals green. Your blood is not fake. It is not ketchup, it is not red paint, it is not corn syrup and red food coloring. Your blood is real. Your cut is self-inflicted with a sliver of a razor blade that you hide somewhere on your body and use to slice across your forehead. You will have scars on your forehead for the rest of your life, but those scars equaled money, so those scars are not regrets.

When you are in that ring, you are in control and you are experiencing a rush, a high, a feeling that cannot be replicated. You perform before packed houses and live crowds and you are an artist. Your profession is ridiculed, people think you are silly or cartoonish, but you are an artist. You and your colleagues are actors and athletes and stunt men. You are masters of improvisation and you are storytellers and you feel like you are on top of the world from the moment you enter the arena to the moment you leave the ring and return backstage. You head back to the dressing room and shake the hand of the man you just pretended to fight, you get congratulatory slaps on the back by your colleagues, you get complimented on your match or your performance by your supervisors. You are in control.

Then you go back to your hotel, in a city you’ve been to dozens of times; a city that is familiar, yet not home; a city that is distant even while you are present. You are in your hotel room and there are no more screaming fans, no more colleagues, no more noises. You are surrounded by a crippling silence — a silence which amplifies all of your other senses, spotlights your thoughts, magnifies your demons. You are confronted by fear — a fear about who you are and what you might become, a fear that scares the blood into rushing through your veins at abnormal speeds, a fear that forces your heart to race, your brain to get lost. You are losing control.

You are a professional wrestler and you make a lot of money, but you travel 350 days out of the year. You have a show each day where you put your body on the line and do indeed get hurt and then you travel to the next town and do it again. You have to do this 350 times a year in order to get paid. There is no vacation time, no off-season.

There is no employee’s union in professional wrestling. There are no healthcare benefits in professional wrestling. There is no pension plan in professional wrestling. You are an independent contractor. You pay for your own air travel, you rent your own car, you pay for your own hotel room, you pay for your own meals, and you do this 350 times a year because it is what you have to do — what you need to do — in order to get paid. You do not have a guaranteed contract. You could get hurt and get fired. You could get boring and get fired. You could simply not look as good as you used to look or be as entertaining as you used to be and get fired.

You love it, though. You need it. It is a drug. The adrenaline rush of performing without a net in front of thousands of people wearing your merchandise or your opponent’s merchandise cannot be replicated by anything synthetic or substantive. It is an experience you have to seek out every night and wake up seeking again the next morning.

You are hurting constantly, so you take pills to mask the pain. You are hyped up on adrenaline after your show, which usually ends late at night, so you find something to do while you come down. You go eat, you go to the gym, you might travel to the next town, and when you get into your hotel, you take more pills or smoke marijuana or drink alcohol to calm down and sleep. You struggle to wake up, so you take pills or snort cocaine to awaken. Once you are awake, you realize that you are hurting once again and it’s back to the pain pills. This happens every day and every night for the remainder of your career, probably for the rest of your life.

Your job is to lie to people. Your job is to be someone you are not, to convince people of things that are not real, to do things that are seemingly impossible. When you are trying to be this other person who does these strange things, you are in control. When it is time to be yourself and live life normally, you lose control. You don’t know who you are. You don’t even know who you want to be.

This is the Iron Sheik’s dilemma. As he has aged, his ability to wrestle has diminished, if not completely evaporated. Physically, he is unable to perform in a wrestling ring because his body is broken-down from decades of punishment. In 2001, the Sheik participated in a battle royal at WrestleMania in Houston’s Astrodome with other retired or semi-retired wrestlers. The goal of a battle royal is to be the last man standing in the ring after every other wrestler has been thrown over the top rope and eliminated from the match. Winning the match was probably the last wrestling highlight of the Iron Sheik’s career and he stood victorious with a smile on his face after the match in front of 70,000 fans. However, the Sheik won the match for one reason only — because he was physically unable to be thrown over the top rope and to the arena floor due to his many injuries. The Iron Sheik could barely walk in 2001. When I met him in 2006, he was forced to get around using a cane.

Today, the Iron Sheik is still booked by independent wrestling companies throughout the United States. He is featured on radio shows and internet sites. He is arguably a bigger star in 2010 than he was in 1985. Yet, this is because he is a spectacle — a train-wreck at times. He gets drunk and curses former colleagues, threatens people, says outlandish things that are either belligerent rants or warning signs. There are more videos on YouTube of the Iron Sheik doing and saying something outrageous than there are of the Iron Sheik wrestling.

The thing is, I don’t know how much of that Iron Sheik is Khosrow Vaziri losing control and succumbing to his demons and how much of it is Khosrow Vaziri giving people what they want. Is he crazy or is he just compensating for his inability to wrestle to earn money by saying such insane things that people want to pay him in order to hear what he might say? In professional wrestling, “working” is the act of tricking a “mark” or fan into believing something or suspending their disbelief enough to be entertained by something. Is the Iron Sheik still just “working” everyone after all these years?

I didn’t spend enough time with him to figure it out, but I do know this. When I met the Iron Sheik, he was kind and generous, soft-spoken and quiet. When I spoke to him during commercial breaks, he wasn’t yelling about putting people in the Camel Clutch or calling Hulk Hogan a “faggot”. When I spoke to him during commercial breaks, he told me about his daughter, who was strangled by her boyfriend in 2003. He was sad while talking about it, obviously affected, and stated that he wished nothing more than to get revenge for his daughter’s murder. I expected him to rant about grabbing his daughter’s murderer and detailing everything he wanted to do to the man, but instead, the Sheik quietly pointed out that he knows he can’t do what he hoped to do, but that he is a Muslim and that he truly believed in an eye for an eye. It wasn’t bluster or bravado; it was a grieving father wanting revenge.

And, then, the “ON-AIR” light brightened and the Sheik entered the radio studio and he was the loud, wild, frantic Iron Sheik yelling about beating Bob Backlund for the “double-yoo-double-yoo-heff” championship in the “Madison Square Garden. Most famous arena in world!”. It was fascinating and unusual, and I don’t know which side of the Sheik was the character. If he was “working” us, he was a magician.

On the night of my friend Chris’s birthday party, over 1,000 people packed a bar in Philadelphia for a live broadcast, comedy show, musical performance, and special appearance by the Iron Sheik. The Sheik was positioned at a table near the stage and he sold t-shirts and photographs to a rabid crowd of radio show listeners. I was roaming the bar with a wireless microphone throughout the night, but one of my main responsibilities was interviewing the Sheik every once in a while and making sure he was doing okay.

I had taken a cab to the bar with the Sheik and his manager and he was quiet, thoughtful Khosrow during the ride. The Sheik was obviously tired and obviously not looking forward to four hours inside a packed bar with rabid Philadelphians surrounding him. Twenty years earlier, a sold-out Philadelphia Spectrum would have excited him, but this was a bar gig with people who weren’t even old enough to know what the Iron Sheik was before he was a punchline. In the cab, the Sheik told me about his home in Atlanta and how he didn’t get to spend enough time there. He gave me one of his t-shirts. I was grateful for his generosity and was nice enough to resist telling him that I couldn’t imagine a situation where I would willingly wear a white shirt with a giant photo of the Iron Sheik in wrestling tights, an open robe and a kaffiyeh.

I thought it would be rough for the Sheik at the birthday party, and it was, but no one who met him or listened to him or watched him ever knew this. Throughout the night, Sheik signed hundreds of autographs and took scores of photographs. He would grab the microphone from me and rally the crowd or get the fans to make noise. He seemed energized and capable of being ringmaster for as long as he was needed. He was — without a doubt — the Iron Sheik.

As the night drew to a close, the crowds did not get any smaller, but the Sheik was exhausted. He continued signing autographs and greeting fans, but whispered to me at one point, “Sheik needs to get sleep, brother.” When he left after four hours at the party, I helped clear a path for him through the crowd of alcohol-soaked listeners and the Sheik looked just like he did when he’d enter an arena in the early-1980’s and interact with fans. He shook hands and commented to people and kept the act going, but would whisper every few seconds “I follow you, brother.”

When we finally got backstage, the Sheik sat down on a couch and said, “I am getting too old for the shows” and at that moment, he looked every moment of his 63 years. He leaned his scarred forehead against the handle of his cane. He pulled on the ends of his famous mustache. He looked weary and grandfatherly, lonely and lost. He didn’t look like a cartoon character. He looked every part that he had ever played all rolled into one elderly, broken-down, exhausted man.

I knew then that he was Khosrow Vaziri. Whatever he might say, whomever he might pretend to be, he knew who he was and wanted to be. He had “worked” everyone. He made them believe that he was the crazy Iron Sheik because that was his job and his job was to trick people. Really, though, he was Khosrow Vaziri and, for the first time, I called him by that name.

“Khosrow,” I said, “are you ready to go back to the hotel?”

He looked at me with tired eyes, his body language shifted upright, his head bolted upwards from the handle of his can, and he started to stand.

“Sheiky Baby needs his medicine,” he said. “Can you find a medicine man, brother?”

I could only laugh. Just when I thought I had figured him out, the Iron Sheik had “worked” me. I guess I should have known better. After all, the man is in a Hall of Fame devoted to the best tricksters in a business known for trickery. If he can’t figure himself out, I have no hope for doing so. My only hope is that he finds the answer someday, even if he makes us believe otherwise.

image

After nearly a quarter-century in Washington, there wasn’t much that could shock Jerry Ford.  But it was quite the surprise when he went from the road to retirement and ended up as the most powerful person in the world despite never wanting or seeking the job.   

First elected to represent Michigan’s 5th Congressional district in the United States House of Representatives in 1948, Ford won his next twelve elections with relative ease, garnering an average of 64% of the vote from his constituents during his Congressional career.  Hard-working, loyal, and popular on both sides of the aisle, Ford rose to the rank of House Minority Leader in 1965.  Ford loved Congress, but by the autumn of 1973, he was beginning to consider retirement.  His only ambition was to become Speaker of the House and as Minority Leader, he was practically guaranteed the Speakership if his Republican Party could only regain control of the House.  The GOP had lost their majority control of the House of Representatives in 1950 and the party’s prospects of winning it back sometime soon — and handing the Speaker’s gavel to Gerald Ford — did not look promising. 

Although Richard Nixon was re-elected President in 1972 in a landslide victory over George McGovern, the Republicans didn’t come any closer to retaking the House and didn’t bring Ford any closer to finally becoming Speaker.  The fact that the GOP won 49 states in the Presidential election in 1972 and the Democrats still held on to the House led Ford to believe that the Republicans might never win back Ford’s chamber of Congress (in fact, it wasn’t until 1994 that the Republicans finally did take control of the House).  Retirement became more than a possibility; it became the plan.  After the 1972 election, Ford quietly decided he’d serve one more term and retire at the end of 1976.  By the fall of 1973, Ford was beginning to look forward to more time back home in Michigan, more time with his family, and the chance to finally earn some money after spending most of his adult life in public service.

•••

On October 10, 1973, Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned.  While Ford was looking forward to taking advantage of financial opportunities that might open up to him once he left office, Agnew was taking advantage of his power to earn money from kickbacks and bribes.  It began while Agnew was Governor of Maryland and continued during his Vice Presidency.  Agnew proclaimed his innocence, but the evidence against him was strong.  There was a very real chance that the Vice President of the United States would be arrested and charged with extortion and receiving bribes.  Agnew worked out a deal with federal prosecutors.  In order to avoid trial and the more serious felonies that he was in danger of being indicted for, the Vice President would resign his office and plead no contest to a tax evasion charge.  

Neither Jerry Ford nor anybody else knew so at the time, but when Spiro Agnew accepted envelopes of cash in the Governor’s office in Annapolis and inside the Vice President’s office in Washington, it triggered one of the most unlikely events in American history.  Soon, Ford would learn that his retirement would have to wait and he would quickly become one of the central characters in perhaps the most serious Constitutional crisis and political drama that the nation has ever seen.  In a matter of ten months, Gerald Rudolph Ford would go from a veteran member of Congress heading towards retirement to Vice President of the United States to President of the United States.  

Things were getting nasty in Washington even before Agnew was forced to resign in the face of criminal charges.  The Watergate scandal was beginning to dominate the headlines and hijack the Nixon Administration’s attention and agenda.  Before long Congress would have to take action, but Agnew’s departure left a vacancy in the Vice Presidency and there was a serious possibility that Nixon would be next to go.  A Vice President had to be appointed by Nixon to replace Agnew, and he had to amenable to Congress since a majority of the House and the Senate were needed to confirm Nixon’s nominee.  New revelations in the Watergate scandal were seemingly appearing daily, chipping away at Nixon’s increasingly unsteady hold on to the Presidency.  By confirming Nixon’s Vice Presidential nominee, most members of Congress recognized that they weren’t just replacing Spiro Agnew — they were likely choosing the next President of the United States, too.  While the choice belonged to the Republican President Nixon, the responsibility for confirming the new Vice President fell to a Congress which had significant Democratic majorities in both chambers.  

Nixon was determined to nominate John Connally — a Democrat-turned-Republican, a longtime protege and ally of Lyndon Johnson, Nixon’s former Treasury Secretary, and, probably best-known as the Governor of Texas who was shot and seriously wounded while riding in the limousine with President Kennedy when JFK was assassinated in Dallas.  Nixon actually wanted to dump Spiro Agnew from the ticket in 1972 and nominate Connally in his place, but he was convinced by party leaders that it was a bad political move which could cost him the election since Agnew was actually quite popular with the GOP’s political base.  Now, with Agnew gone, Nixon saw an opportunity to get what he wanted in the first place.  This time it was Congressional leaders who vetoed the idea.  Democrats led by House Speaker Carl Albert, still stung by the fact that Connally bolted the party in favor of the GOP, said they would not confirm him as the new Vice President if he were nominated.  Albert — who was next in line to the Presidency while the Vice Presidency remained vacant — suggested to Nixon’s Congressional liaisons that if the choice belonged to the House of Representatives, they would pick one of their own for the Vice Presidency:  Gerald Ford.

A few hours after Agnew officially resigned, Speaker Albert made the same suggestion about Ford directly to the President.  Nixon had requested that Albert and the Democratic Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield meet with him at the White House to discuss potential nominees for the Vice Presidency.  There were no misgivings about their Republican counterpart from the Democratic Congressional leaders.  Ford was the best choice and would be easily confirmed by both chambers of Congress.  In fact, Albert would later note that Ford was the only choice.  “We gave Nixon no choice but Ford,” the Speaker said.  And recognizing that Nixon was probably following Agnew out the White House door in the not-too-distant future, Albert noted, “Congress made Jerry Ford President.”  Senator Mansfield had similar feelings.  “It wasn’t a case of Ford being picked by Nixon,” said the Senate Majority Leader.  “It was a case of keeping the institution of Congress, both bodies, in mind as to what its reaction would be.  In fact, Ford was elected to the Vice Presidency, by the House and Senate.”  Two days later, President Nixon officially nominated Gerald Ford as Vice President of the United States.  And while he planned to hold on to the Presidency as long as possible, Nixon’s later writings show that he recognized that he might be nominating Ford for more than the Vice Presidency, “I felt that as a political realist there was at least a fifty percent chance that Ford might become President.”

Following Nixon’s announcement about Ford’s nomination live on primetime television in front of a White House East Room audience filled with staffers and Cabinet members, Nixon isolated himself in the Lincoln Sitting Room as he often did to sit and stew and think and obsess.  Ford went home and privately did something that demonstrates why so many of his political opponents genuinely liked and respected him.  That night, as one of his first acts as Vice President-designate, Ford picked up the telephone and called Spiro Agnew.  “I want you to know how sorry I am that events worked out this way,” Ford told his disgraced predecessor, and he meant what he said.

•••

Prior to the confirmation hearings and voting, the FBI gave Gerald Ford the most invasive background check in the Bureau’s long and nosy history.  Nobody suspected or expected that they would find anything dirty about Jerry Ford, but it was better to be safe than sorry and rule out any possibility of another Spiro Agnew.  Or another Richard Nixon.  Ford welcomed the investigation and cooperated in full.  Few people have been so thoroughly examined, yet Ford had no worries.  According to Ford biographer James Cannon, the FBI had more than 350 agents working on Ford’s background check.  Over 30 FBI field offices were involved and more than 1,000 people interviewed.  Nearly every alphabet agency in the government looked into Ford’s life and his Congressional career — votes, speeches, writings — was carefully sifted through by historians at the Library of Congress.  The House and Senate deputized over 50 of their own investigators to do their own investigation independent of the FBI.  Ford’s bank accounts were looked over by forensic accountants, his medical records were examined, his dealings with every federal department throughout his quarter-century-long Congressional career were investigated, and his friends, family, associates, college football teammates — almost anybody who had any extended contact with him during his 60 years of life was thoroughly interrogated about Ford’s life and character.  Through it all, the one issue that was discovered was that Ford had incorrectly listed an expense that he shouldn’t have deducted in 1972.  He promptly paid $435.77 in back taxes to right the one minor wrong that could be found.  Following the background check, Ford patiently and candidly spent nearly a month answering an exhaustive load of questions from members of the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration and the House Judiciary Committee.   

Finally, it came to the voting.  On November 27, 1973, the Senate voted 92-3 to confirm Ford’s nomination.  The House of Representatives followed suit on December 6, 1973, confirming Ford by a 387-35 margin.  While President Nixon wanted Ford to be sworn in at the White House, Ford and Speaker Carl Albert wanted the ceremony to take place at the Capitol — Ford for sentiment reasons because the Capitol had been his home for 24 years, Albert to set a precedent and recognize the role of Congress in Ford’s appointment and confirmation.  Chief Justice Warren Burger administered the oath of office at 6:10 PM on December 6, 1973 and Gerald Rudolph Ford officially became the 40th Vice President of the United States.

The two months between Ford’s nomination as Vice President and his confirmation and swearing in, filled with extensive investigations of his background and penetrating questions by people who largely knew him but still had the responsibility of deciding his future, had seemed to drag by.  That was all about to change.  Watergate had crippled the Presidency and Richard Nixon’s response to it had continually worsene the scandal.  The worry was no longer about whether Nixon would damage the Presidency, but how badly and whether it could ever recover.  Nixon continued to cling to power, but the nine months after Ford became Vice President raced by as the news got worse and worse.  It became readily apparent that Nixon would either have to resign or he would be impeached and removed from office.  And, still, the President held on in the hopes that a group of Republican supporters might also hold out and block any attempts in Congress to impeach him.  When the “smoking gun” audiotape of Nixon conspiring to cover up the Watergate was found and released, all bets were off.  Even Nixon’s staunchest Congressional supporters notified the President that they would not defend him and that it was time for him to go.  

In the time since Ford had become Vice President, renovations were underway to turn a beautiful three-story brick home on the grounds of the United States Naval Observatory into the official residence of the Vice President of the United States.  While the work was being done, Vice President Ford and his family had continued living in their home in Alexandria, Virginia where photographers and reporters often watched as the Vice President stepped outside in the morning in his bathrobe to retrieve the newspaper.  As cozy and familiar as their home in Alexandria, the Fords were somewhat excited to move into the elegant Vice Presidential Residence at the Naval Observatory, a home unlike any of the other homes that the Fords had previously been able to live in with Ford’s modest salary as a lifelong public servant.  On August 1, 1974, Alexander Haig, the White House Chief of Staff, called Vice President Ford and described the smoking gun tape, noting that it probably would be the knockout blow for the Nixon Presidency.  Haig suggested that Ford prepare himself to assume the Presidency soon.  After the call from Haig, the Vice President turned to his wife.  

"Betty," Ford said, "I don’t think we’re ever going to live in the Vice President’s house."

•••

Before noon on August 9, 1974, a somber crowd gathered on the South Lawn of the White House near the Presidential helicopter Marine One.  A red carpet was rolled out on the grass from the White House’s Diplomatic Entrance to the steps of Marine One.  Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford walked towards the helicopter, their wives, Pat Nixon and Betty Ford, just a few steps behind them.  Ford had a resolute, determined look on his face while Nixon’s face frozen in a half-smile, but it was a diversion from his eyes which were not smiling at all.  Nobody’s eyes can lie and no matter how strong of a front he tried to display, Nixon’s eyes were full of pain, sadness, and the realization that, for once in his life, he had nobody else to blame for his downfall.  He had basically said as much — not in his nationally-televised speech from the Oval Office the night before, but earlier that morning in the East Room during an emotional speech to members of the White House staff.  It was the most honest speech Richard Nixon had ever given.  With his voice-breaking, Nixon counseled the staff and gave some insight into what he was actually feeling:  “Always give your best, never get discouraged, never be petty; always remember, others may hate you, but those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them.  And then you destroy yourself.”

Now, on the South Lawn and heading towards the helicopter, Nixon was still technically President and would be until 12:00 PM.  Nixon and Ford turned to each other.  “Jerry” and “Dick”, who had known each other since both were young Congressmen in the late 1940s when they formed a small social club of young Republican legislators called the “Chowder and Marching Society”.  “Goodbye, Mr. President,” said Ford.  “Goodbye, Mr. President,” responded Nixon.  Ford had a grim look on his face as he stopped and stood next to Betty while the Nixons continued towards Marine One.  After Pat Nixon boarded the helicopter, it was Nixon’s turn.  At the top of the steps, he turned to the crowd, raised both arms in an awkward, jerky manner, and with his fingers posed in the “Victory” salute waved goodbye to Ford, Betty, and everyone else watching before he and his frozen smile disappeared into the helicopter which immediately lifted off to deliver Nixon into political exile.  At some point while flying over the State of Missouri in Air Force One, the pilot changed the plane’s call sign.  While he still had Richard Nixon on the plane, Nixon was officially no longer President at 12:00 PM and Air Force One immediately became a “Special Air Mission” instead.

Gerald and Betty headed inside the White House once Marine One lifted off the South Lawn and flew towards Andrews Air Force Base.  The mood was somber as they walked to the Diplomatic Entrance, but Ford was resolute.  Gerald Ford never lacked confidence and August 9, 1974 was no different.  Jerry was holding Betty’s hand and as they got cloesr to the White House, Ford gently squeezed it.  Calmly, he said to his wife, “We can do it.”  And then, as if reassuring himself for what was about to happen, Ford said, “We are ready.”  

Inside the East Room, the same location as Nixon’s tearful farewell two hours earlier, a very different crowd had packed the cavernous room.  Chief Justice Warren Burger administered an oath to Gerald Ford for the second time in nine months, but this was the Presidential oath of office.  As Richard Nixon lost the privileges of the Air Force One call sign over the midwest, Ford gave a brief inaugural address to the assembled crowd and didn’t hesitate to address the unique situation of becoming the most powerful man in the world without ever being elected President or Vice President:

"I am acutely aware that you have not elected me as your President by your ballots, and so I ask you to confirm me as your President with your prayers.  And I hope that such prayers will also be the first of many.  If you have not chosen me by secret ballot, neither have I gained office by any secret promises.  I have not campaigned either for the Presidency or the Vice Presidency.  I am indebted to no man, and only to one woman — my dear wife — as I begin this very difficult job."

And in the most famous part of President Ford’s speech, he helped to ease a nation still reeling from the unprecedented political drama that had gripped the United States for months:

"My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over.  Our Constitution works.  Our great Republic is a government of laws and not of men.  Here the people rule."

image

The USS Finback, a 312-foot-long Gato-class submarine surfaced a little before noon on September 2, 1944 in the treacherous waters near Chichi Jima, the site of a Japanese military base on one of the Bonin Islands, approximately 150 miles north of Iwo Jima.  The Finback was assigned “lifeguard duty” and was performing search and rescue missions for American airmen who had been shot down in action and might have survived via bail-out or crash landing.

Earlier that morning, four TBM Avenger aircraft had launched from the USS San Jacinto targeting radio installations on Chichi Jima.  At around 8:30 AM, one of the Avengers was blasted by Japanese anti-aircraft shells as it made its bombing run over the island.  With the plane on fire and losing control, the pilot continued his run, dropping his four 500-pound bombs on the target he had been given that morning on the San Jacinto.  Turning back towards the sea, smoke and flames filled the cockpit, choking the crew of three.  Working hard to create distance between the island and the failing aircraft, the pilot ordered his crew to bail out by parachute, shouting “Hit the silk!” over the Avenger’s radio.

As the pilot exited the aircraft, his head smashed into the plane’s tail, slicing a thick gash above his eye, tearing panels from his chute, and sending him plummeting towards the sea at a higher rate of speed than he should have been.  Still, he splashed down in the Pacific Ocean and another American plane dropped a life raft near him.  He was alive.  He was alone.

On Chichi Jima, four miles to the southwest, Japanese authorities began to organize a search party to capture any downed American pilots who might have survived.  Boats were launched to find them.  The pilot, stung by a Portuguese man-o-war, vomiting from ingesting sea water, and dazed from the trauma of the attack and the bleeding head wound, still had the presence of mind to begin paddling away from Chichi Jima.  Allied forces never captured Chichi Jima during the war, and reports of atrocities ranging from Japanese soldiers summarily beheading Allied prisoners to cannibalism of POWs by Japanese troops led to the post-war execution of five of Chichi Jima’s leading officers, including the commander, Major Sueo Matoba.

The current was sweeping the Avenger’s pilot towards Chichi Jima and he desperately paddled against it and out into the open sea.  Other members of his aerial squadron opened fire to keep away the Japanese boats heading towards him while another American aircraft radioed the downed pilot’s position to the Finback, which steamed towards him.

When the submarine surfaced, it was unclear to the pilot whether he had been rescued or captured.  Then five American submariners appeared on the deck.  Grainy video footage, now nearly 70 years old, survives of the Finback's submariners fishing the gangly, 6'2” pilot from the sea after his three-hour-long ordeal battling injuries and the Pacific Ocean.  

Like so many of the soldiers and sailors risking and sacrificing their lives on distant continents and in remote seas; like the men who saved his life on that September 2, 1944, the pilot was very young — just 20 years old.

His name was George Herbert Walker Bush. 

•••

Today, George H.W. Bush celebrates his 89th birthday and is one of the longest-living Presidents in American history.  He was 17 years old and attending the elite Philips Academy boarding school in Andover, Massachusetts when Pearl Harbor was bombed.  As Bush and many of his fellow well-to-do classmates prepared to graduate in 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson gave a commencement address urging the patrician prep school grads to go to college first rather than to enlist in the war.  Four days after graduating, Bush turned 18 years old and immediately enlisted in the United States Navy.

With the influence of his father, Bush could have found himself in any number of safe, stateside jobs in the service.  Instead, he became the Navy’s youngest fighter pilot.  Even before being shot down over Chichi Jima, Bush had experienced the rough landings of flight training and ravages of war.  During training, he totaled a plane during a crash landing.  In June 1944, he was forced to ditch his plane — fully-loaded with bombs — in the sea during a mission, escaped the plane just before it exploded, and had to be rescued by the USS Bronson.  By the war’s end, Bush had flown 58 combat missions during 1,228 hours of total flight time.  There were 14 pilots who originally formed Bush’s VT-51 torpedo bomber flight squadron; when he was discharged from the service in September 1945, Bush and just three other pilots from that squadron survived.

Yet, it wasn’t what he saw that haunted George H.W. Bush — indeed, what haunts him still today.  It was what he didn’t see as he parachuted out of the burning wreckage of his TBM Avenger on September 2, 1944.  Or who he didn’t see.

•••

As Bush prepared to bomb Chichi Jima that morning, he was joined by two crew members in his TBM Avenger, tailgunner Ted White and radioman John Delaney.  At 26, White was a few years older than Bush, but their fathers had been classmates at Yale, which created an obvious connection between the two young men aboard the San Jacinto.  White wasn’t a normal member of Bush’s crew but, that morning, requested that he be allowed to replace Bush’s regular tailgunner, Leo Nadeau, and received permission.

When their plane was hit, Bush did all he could to order his two crewmembers to bail out of the plane and assist them in doing so, but the black smoke and flames tearing through the aircraft made it impossible for the pilot to see if White and Delaney had indeed exited the plane.  Not only had Bush turned the badly-damaged plane out towards the sea, but he dipped the wings to make it easier for the crew members to pop open their door on the left side of the aircraft and bail out.  By doing this, Bush cost himself some precious time and made his own exit from the Avenger more difficult — perhaps the reason he slammed against the tail of the aircraft as he parachuted out.

Other American pilots in Bush’s squadron that morning said that they noticed two parachutes deploy from Bush’s Avenger.  As Bush plummeted towards the Pacific Ocean, he scanned the sky for the chutes of Delaney and White, but saw neither.  As he paddled with one hand in his life raft to get as far away from the coast of Chichi Jima as possible, Bush continued to search the sky and the sea for his crewmates.  But it was to no avail.  John Delaney and Ted White were never found.  If one of the two men did bail out of the plane with Bush and deploy his parachute, he was immediately lost and the same pilots that radioed Bush’s position to the Finback never located him.  The other man most likely went down with the crippled TBM Avenger.

Nearly 60 years later, when Bush’s son had also been elected President of the United States, Bush visited the Bonin Islands and spoke to CNN about his ordeal.  With all of the experiences of his life — all of the triumphs and tragedies — it was the loss of Ted White and John Delaney which continued to weigh heavily on George H.W. Bush.  “I wake up at night and think about it sometimes,” the former President told CNN, “Could I have done something differently?  I’m not haunted by anything other than the fact I feel a responsibility for the lives of the two people that were killed.  I wonder if I could have done something different?  I wonder who got out of the plane?  I wonder — wonder why the chute didn’t open for the other guy?  Why me?  Why am I blessed?  Why am I still alive?  That has plagued me.”

How much did it plague George H.W. Bush?  When the author and historian James Bradley interviewed the former President about his story for Bradley’s book Flyboys, Bush startled Bradley by asking the author if he had any new information about the fates of John Delaney and Ted White.  

•••

When the Finback surfaced and fished George Herbert Walker Bush out of the sea, the submariners treated him for his wounds, fed him, gave him new clothes to wear, and he became a part of the Finback crew — an honorary submariner — for the next month, as the submarine continued its mission, patrolling hot spots in the Pacific Theater just in case another downed pilot required rescue.

Everything was still raw when the future President sat down the next day at a typewriter on the Finback and pecked out a letter to his parents back home in Connecticut.  It is the testament of a 20-year-old man born with all of the advantages in the world, sharing his story with his parents and letting them know how the war had touched him…and how it could easily touch them:

Dear Mother and Dad,

This will be the first letter you have gotten from me in a good long while.  I wish I could tell you that as I write this I am feeling well and happy.  Physically I am O.K., but I am troubled inside and with good cause.  Here is the whole story at least as much of it as I am allowed to relate right now.

Yesterday was a day which will long stand in my memory.  I was on a bombing hop with Delaney as my radioman and Lt. (j.g.) Ted White as my gunner.  He did not usually fly, but I asked him if he would like to go with me and he wanted to.  We had the usual joking around in the ready room about having to bail out etc. — at that time it all seemed so friendly and innocent but now it seems awful and sinister.

I will have to skip all the details of the attack as they would not pass the censorship, but the fact remains that we got hit.  The cockpit filled with smoke and I told the boys in back to get their parachutes on.  They didn’t answer at all, but I looked around and couldn’t see Ted in the turret so I assumed he had gone below to get his chute fastened on.  I headed the plane out to sea and put on the throttle so as we could get away from the land as much as possible.  I am not too clear about the next parts.  I told them to bail out, and then I called up the skipper and told him I was bailing out.  My crewmen never acknowledged either transmission, and yet the radio gear was working — at least mine was and unless they had been hit back there theirs should have been, as we had talked not long before.  I heard the skipper say something but things were happening so fast that I don’t quite remember what it was.  I turned the plane up in an attitude so as to take pressure off the back hatch so the boys could get out.  After that I straightened up and started to get out myself.  At that time I felt certain that they had bailed out.  The cockpit was full of smoke and I was choking from it.  I glanced at the wings and noticed that they were on fire.  I still do not know where we got hit and never will.  I am now beginning to think that perhaps some of the fragments may have either killed the two in back, or possibly knocked out their communications.

Fortunately I had fastened all my straps before the dive and also I had left my hatch open, something I hadn’t been doing before.  Just the day before I had asked the skipper and he advised leaving it open in a dive.  The jump itself wasn’t too bad.  I stuck my head out first and the old wind really blew me the rest of the way out.  I do remember tugging at my radio cord which I had forgotten to unplug.  As I left the plane my head struck the tail.  I now have a cut head and bruised eye but it is far from serious.  After jumping, I must have pulled the ripcord too soon for when I was floating down, I looked up at the canopy and several of the panels were all ripped out.  Just as I got floating down, I saw the plane strike the water.  In the meantime, I noticed that there was a liferaft down in the water.  Not until later did I discover that it was mine that was supposed to be attached to my lifejacket.  I had forgotten to hook it on, and when I left the plane it had come loose and had fallen into the water.  Fortunately, the wind didn’t carry me too far away from the raft.  The entrance into the water was not too bad.  I had unloosened several of my chute straps so that when it came to getting out of the harness I wouldn’t have too many buckles to undo under the water.  I went fairly deep when I hit, but not deep enough to notice any pressure or anything.  I shook the harness and the wind carried the chute away on the water.  The wind was blowing towards shore, so I made every effort to head the other way.  The skipper saw me and he saw my raft, so he made a pass over it to point it out to me.  I had inflated my mae west [sailors called their inflatable yellow life vests “Mae Wests”] and then started swimming towards the raft.  Fortunately, the fall hadn’t injured the boat, so it inflated easily and I struggled into it.  I then realized that I had overexerted myself swimming, because suddenly I felt quite tired.  I was still afraid that the wind would take me in closer so I began paddling.  It was a hell of a job to keep the water out of the raft.  In fact I never did get it bailed out completely.  At first I was scared that perhaps a boat would put out from shore which was very close by, but I guess our planes made them think twice about that.  A few fighter planes stayed nearby the whole time until I was rescued and you can imagine how comfortable that was.  One of them came right over me and dropped me some medical supplies which were most welcome, since I had no idea how badly cut up I was.  It turned out to be slight, but did use the iodine anyway.  I had some dye marker attached to my life jacket and also there was some in the raft so I sprinkled a bit of that on the water so the planes could see me easily.  I took inventory of my supplies and discovered that I had no water.  The water had broken open when the raft fell from the plane I imagine.  I had a mirror and some other equipment, and also was wearing my own gun and knife.

There was no sign of Del or Ted anywhere around.  I looked as I floated down and afterwards kept my eye open from the raft, but to no avail.  The fact that our planes didn’t seem to be searching anymore showed me pretty clearly that they had not gotten out.  I’m afraid I was pretty much of a sissy about it cause I sat in my raft and sobbed for awhile.  It bothers me so very much.  I did tell them and when I bailed out I felt that they must have gone, and yet now I feel so terribly responsible for their fate, Oh so much right now.  Perhaps as the days go by it will all change and I will be able to look upon it in a different light.

I floated around for a couple of hours during which time I was violently sick to my stomach, and then the planes started zooming me, pointing out my position to my rescuers.  You can imagine how happy I was when I saw this submarine hove into view.  They pulled me out of the raft and took me below where they fixed me up in grand style.  As I write this I am aboard the sub — don’t know how long I will be here, or when I will get back to the squadron.

As I said physically I am o.k.  The food aboard here is unequaled anywhere I have ever seen.  I am getting plenty of sleep and am even standing watches so that I will get the air occasionally.  My back ached as did my leg last nite, and also my seat was a bit sore from the chute straps, but the pharmacist mate rubbed me down and today I feel much better.  Last nite I rolled and tossed.  I kept reliving the whole experience.  My heart aches for the families of those two boys with me.  Delaney had always been a fine loyal crewman.  His devotion to duty was at all times highly commendable and his personality most pleasing.  I shall most certainly write to his family after I am sure they have been notified by the Bureau.

As for Ted White, I have spoken of him several times in my letters before.  He was the fellow from Yale, one class ahead of Stu Clement [Bush’s first cousin].  He comes from St. Paul Minn.  White Bear Lake to be exact.  Perhaps Dad, you know the family.  If so do not write them until you get the word from me or elsewhere that the family has been officially notified.  There is a possibility that they parachuted and I didn’t see them, but I am afraid it is quite remote as we received a message aboard here last nite saying that only one chute opened.  All in all it is terribly discouraging and frankly it bothers me a good deal.

As time goes by I shall add bits to this letter and will mail it at my earliest possible convenience.  I shall do the same by Bar, but shall not go into detail like this over my experience so please read her the parts of the letter which might interest her.  It’s a funny thing how much I thought about Bar during the whole experience.  What I wouldn’t give to be with her right now.  Just to see that lovely face and those beautiful eyes and to know she was by my side.  Right now I long to be with you so much.  To be with you both and to be with Bar is my main desire — at least it won’t be too long, the time is going by quite rapidly.

Please excuse all my misspellings — they are caused not from ignorance but from carelessness in operating this machine.

much much love to you all,
your ever devoted and loving son,
Pop  

•••

As he celebrates his 89th birthday, George Herbert Walker Bush has been many things to many people, and has done so much for so many more.

During the Vietnam War, Creedence Clearwater Revival’s song “Fortunate Son” sang: "It ain’t me, it ain’t me, I ain’t no Senator’s son/It ain’t me, it ain’t me, I ain’t no fortunate one, no."

Not too long after World War II, George H.W. Bush was a Senator’s son — his father Prescott was elected to the U.S. Senate from Connecticut.  Later, George Bush blazed his own trail.  Oilman.  U.S. Representative from Texas.  An unsuccessful candidate for the U.S. Senate from Texas (encouraged by the Texas Democrat and President Lyndon B. Johnson that the difference between the House and the Senate was the difference between “chicken shit and chicken salad”).  U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations.  Chairman of the Republican National Committee.  Chief U.S. Liasion in China.  CIA Director.  Vice President of the United States under Ronald Reagan.  President of the United States (“41”).  Father of a President (“43”) and Governor.

But before everything — George Herbert Walker Bush was a war hero.  And he was a war hero because of his love, honor, and duty to his country.

Just don’t ask George Bush if he was a war hero.

"It was just part of my duty.  People say ‘war hero’.  How come a guy who gets his airplane shot down is a hero and a guy who’s good enough that he doesn’t get shot down is not?  Ask [John F.] Kennedy about it, why are you a hero?  ‘They sank my boat.’  Why am I a hero?  They shot down my airplane."

"Men are products, expressions, reflections; they live to the extent that they coincide with their epoch, or to the extent that they differ markedly from it." — José Martí, Cuban Revolutionary/Poet/Patriot, 1887

Men die — even Revolutionaries like Ché Guevara, Fidel Castro, and Hugo Chávez (well, maybe not Fidel, he’s still fighting).  The true measure of their impact, however, is not simply what they did, but what remains once they are gone.  In my latest article for AND Magazine, “¿Viva La Revolucíon?”, I look at a connection between Ché and Chávez, and wonder whether their Revolutions died with the Revolutionaries.  I also question those Americans who celebrated Chávez’s death much like they celebrated Osama bin Laden’s despite the fact that bin Laden planned terror attacks which killed thousands of Americans while Chávez was basically just an obnoxious presence.  Is it as much of a capital crime to antagonize America with annoying rhetoric as it is to target innocent Americans for murder through terror?  While I don’t make apologies for Hugo Chávez, in the wake of his death, I try to see his impact through the eyes of his neighbors in Latin America whose interactions with the late Venezuelan leader were largely affectionate.  Go check out my article in AND Magazine, “¿Viva La Revolucíon?”, and please click the Facebook “like” or “recommend” button underneath the article’s title!

Almost exactly one hundred years prior to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, another act of terror on a bright September day in New York rocked the United States during the first year of a new century.  In the photo above, President William McKinley is shown walking up the steps at the Temple of Music at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York just minutes before he was shot.  McKinley had recently been re-elected to a second term and was extraordinarily popular after successfully leading the country through the Spanish-American War. 

At the Pan-American Exposition, President McKinley spent time attending receptions, meeting dignitaries, and shaking hands with visitors to the fair.  It was work McKinley enjoyed doing.  The 58-year-old President was a kindly, gentle man who doted over his beloved wife who was nearly invalid.  Ida McKinley was epileptic and the President took care of her constantly, never shying away from her illness or allowing it to affect his responsibilities or his public duties.  At dinners, if Ida suffered an epileptic fit or seizure, the President would quietly and gently drape a handkerchief over her face or distract everyone’s attention and continue conversation as usual.  McKinley thoughtfully included Ida in as much as she could handle and never made her feel embarrassed about her condition.

McKinley was kind to other people, as well.  The President hated to disappoint people, hated to tell people no, and hated to be the person to break bad news to someone else.  Often, McKinley would wear a pink carnation in his lapel, which he would give to those who might be disappointed after a difficult meeting.  President McKinley wanted people who met with him to at least walk away with something when they left his office, even if they didn’t get what they had come for.

It was this thoughtfulness which led William McKinley to deflect worries by his personal secretary George B. Cortelyou that the public receptions at the Pan-American Exposition might be a security risk.  It was McKinley’s gentle manner which led him to refuse Cortelyou’s suggestions to cancel the public receptions in Buffalo.  It was McKinley’s good heart which led him to genuinely believe that “No one would wish to hurt me.”  It was the way that McKinley put other people first that caused him to notice the man in line at the Temple of Music with a bandaged right hand and decide to reach to shake the man’s other hand.

The man with the bandaged hand was Leon Czolgosz, a 28-year-old unemployed mill worker originally from Detroit.  The son of Polish immigrants, Czolgosz had become interested in anarchism and after witnessing a speech by famed anarchist Emma Goldman, Czolgosz decided to make a statement by killing the President.  A day earlier, Czogolsz had planned to shoot McKinley as the President gave his President’s Day speech at the Exposition, but the assassin could not get close enough.  On September 6th, Czoglosz got as close as one could be to the President of the United States and took advantage of William McKinley’s kindness.

As the line queued in the Temple of Music, President McKinley shook hands while surrounded by his personal secretary, Cortelyou, the Exposition’s administrator, John Milburn, and a Secret Service agent.  The Secret Service was not normally charged with the protection of Presidents in 1901, but on this day, two agents accompanied President McKinley as he greeted the large crowd of well-wishers in Buffalo.  The photo above shows the inside of the Temple of Music and an “x” marks the spot where President McKinley stood to shake hands with Leon Czolgosz at 4:07 PM on September 6, 1901.

When the President noticed the bandage on Czolgosz’s right hand, McKinley quickly changed hands to shake Czolgosz’s uninjured left hand.  As the two men grasped hands, Czogolsz grabbed McKinley and pulled him close.  Underneath the bandage in Czogolsz’s right hand was a .32 Iver Johnson revolver and he quickly shot President McKinley twice, point-blank.

The first bullet struck a button and grazed the President’s breastbone without penetrating the skin.  The second shot that Czolgosz fired was far more dangerous.  At point-blank range, so close that it left powder burns on McKinley’s abdomen, the second bullet passed through the President’s stomach, clipped the top of his left kidney and lodged deep in McKinley’s pancreas.  Still standing for a moment after the shooting, McKinley fell backwards into the arms of one of the Secret Service agents and his secretary, George Cortelyou.

Czolgosz — his bandage in flames due to the gunshots — was quickly grabbed by the person in line behind him, James Parker.  Parker, a 6’5” black man, punched the assassin and knocked him to the ground.  The Secret Service agents later admitted that they hadn’t noticed Czolgosz’s suspicious bandaged hand because they were closely watching the large black man, Parker, who was directly behind the assassin.  Buffalo policemen and some fair-goers jumped on Czolgosz and began beating him.  When the seriously wounded President saw this, McKinley yelled, “Don’t let them hurt him!”.

Lying on the floor of the Pan-American Exposition’s Temple of Music, President McKinley thought of his ailing wife.  To his loyal secretary, the President pleaded, “My wife, be careful, Cortelyou, how you tell her — oh, be careful.”  McKinley was rushed to a hospital on the fairgrounds.

At first, it appeared as if McKinley would survive.  In modern terms, McKinley’s gunshot wounds were far less dangerous than those suffered by Ronald Reagan in 1981.  Had McKinley received the same level of care and expertise that President Reagan did eighty years later, he likely would have survived.  However, the doctors in Buffalo searched in vain for the bullet that lodged in his pancreas and left behind bacteria which caused an infection.  After rallying within the first few days of the shooting, McKinley’s condition rapidly deteriorated.  On September 11, 1901, there was hope as McKinley ate solid food for the first time since the shooting.  Sadly, within 24 hours, hope had dissipated.

In the home of the Exposition’s president John Milburn on the morning of September 14, 1901, a quiet crowd surrounded the outside of the building while on the inside, a vigil mounted by his friends, doctors, and colleagues watched over the dying President.  At 2:15 AM on September 14th, President William McKinley died.  What really killed McKinley — besides Czologsz’s act of terror — was a gangrenous infection.  Ironically, President McKinley could have been saved by an X-Ray machine and at the Pan-American Exposition that day there was an experimental X-Ray machine on display.  Nobody thought to retrieve it.

Czolgosz quickly confessed to the assassination, stating “I killed President McKinley because I done my duty. I didn’t believe one man should have so much service and another man should have none.”  Less than a month-and-a-half later, Czolgosz was executed in the electric chamber of New York’s Auburn State Prison

Much like what the United States would experience exactly one hundred years later in the days following the September 11th terrorist attacks, a stunned nation had an outpouring of grief after President McKinley’s assassination.  Americans could hardly believe that such a beautiful September day in New York could turn so ugly, especially as everyone celebrated the first year of a new century.  The flag was everywhere and red, white and blue was displayed along with black crepe mourning the tragedy. 

As with what would happen again 100 years later, the people were united in their sorrow, buried their victim, and looked to a future full of new battles.  In 1901, as in 2001, the United States faced a new day of challenges when an act of terror robbed the country of some of its innocence on a beautiful September day in New York.

The Iron Sheik Is Trapped In A Character He Created
(Originally posted in AND Magazine)

One of my best friends, Chris, is commonly referred to as a “shock jock”, although everyone referred to as a “shock jock” quickly and dismissively rolls their eyes at such a clichéd label. Since before we even became friends, Chris has hosted successful and controversial radio shows in places such as Syracuse, Wichita, Sacramento, San Antonio, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and, currently, Portland, Oregon Atlanta, Georgia.

The KiddChris Show is not for everyone. It is brutal, straightforward, random, offensive, and, more often than not, a four-hour-long inside joke. Since late-2001, I have been involved with Chris’s radio show on various levels, alternating between being intensely involved on a daily basis (in Sacramento), making infrequent appearances and/or helping behind-the-scenes (in San Antonio, Philadelphia/Pittsburgh), and not being involved on pretty much any level whatsoever (my current status). Through the radio show, I’ve met some very interesting people, found myself in unusual situations, and experienced some very surreal things, but nothing was as unusual or surreal and no one was as interesting of a character as the man who I spent the better part of three days talking to, listening to, and helping out in May 2006 — a man who many people know as the Iron Sheik.

In May 2006, I caught a flight for a trip to Philadelphia thanks to my friends at CBS Radio and the legendary rock station that Chris worked at, WYSP. Chris’s show was wildly successful in Philadelphia and had a bigger, more fervent fanbase in the Philly area than it had experienced in any other city it had been broadcast in. Philadelphia fans are viciously loyal as many people who follow sports know quite well (Philly is where Santa Claus was once heckled with boos and then pummeled by a barrage of batteries thrown by Eagles fans). When it comes to radio, the fans are just as loyal and crazy and, to be honest, kind of creepy. They are so loyal and crazy and, to be honest, kind of creepy that Chris’s Philly listeners became known as simply “The Underbelly”. The Underbelly helped make Chris’s show one of the top talk shows on-the-air in Philly, and I headed back to the City of Brotherly Love for Chris’s big birthday celebration at a local bar that would feature a live broadcast of the show, comedy, music, and the Iron Sheik.

As a little kid, I remembered the Iron Sheik as the terrible Iranian bad guy on WWF television with wrestling boots which curled into sharp points and made him look like he stole the shoes of a violent, sadistic elf. I remembered that prior to his matches, the Sheik would proudly wave the Iranian flag and stand at attention with his manager, Classy Freddie Blassie, while his tag team partner Nikolai Volkoff sang the Soviet national anthem. After Volkoff’s rendition of the Soviet anthem was finished, the Sheik would inevitably take the microphone and amid a chorus of boos, yell, “Iran: number one! Russia: number one! USA: Hack-poot!” as he spit with disdain. I don’t remember how Iran and Russia could both be number one, but I wasn’t going to argue with the Iron Sheik in the 1980’s because he had pointy boots and he beat Bob Backlund with the Camel Clutch to win the WWF Championship in Madison Square Garden. I remember that detail because the Iron Sheik mentions it. Constantly. Each and every day, over twenty years later, the Iron Sheik seems to have an internal clock which prompts him every half-hour to say in his eternally broken English: “Madison Square Garden! Most famous arena in the world! I beat the Bob Backlund, the Howdy-Doody look-a-like Bob Backlund, with the Camel Clutch! I humbled him and won the Double-yoo Double-yoo Heff Championship! Most famous arena in the world, New York City!”.

Some people abuse the exclamation point when writing, and I do my best not to use that form of punctuation unless absolutely necessary. In the case of the Iron Sheik, it is constantly necessary. The Iron Sheik speaks in capital letters and exclamation points. Even now — long after his glory days — he is always speaking in sound bites, as if he is cutting one more big promotional monologue for one last big match. The Sheik has likely wrestled his last match. He is still a draw to wrestling fans on the minor league independent wrestling circuit, but it is because of his appearances on radio shows like those belonging to my friend or to Howard Stern, or because of the viral videos on YouTube of an intoxicated or otherwise under-the-influence Sheik profanely insulting and threatening former pro wrestling colleagues. The sad truth is that the Iron Sheik is comic relief, and probably never was much more than that to wrestling fans and non-wrestling fans. He was, and is, a real-life cartoon character. And, today — much like he was when I spent time with him in 2006 — the Iron Sheik is a man in his mid-60’s who can barely walk but who is shuttled around from one place to the next to make a dollar for himself and five dollars for the people who take advantage of him; a man who lives paycheck-to-paycheck despite always working; a man who is best known for his long career in a fake sport despite the fact that he was an accomplished real athlete; and a man who people laugh at even though they think they are laughing with him.

In just three days, I realized that he is all of those things, but he is most importantly a man. He is not a cartoon character and there is nothing funny about the man behind the Iron Sheik character. The guy I watched on TV waving an Iranian flag as professional wrestling’s “evil foreigner” of the 1980’s — the symbolic Ayatollah Khomeini to Hulk Hogan’s Ronald Reagan — is a patriotic U.S. citizen who loves his adopted country, a country he immigrated to forty years ago. In the process, he embarked upon the quintessential American journey: he found a calling, he became rich, he became famous, and, of course, he lost everything. He lost his money, he lost his fame, he lost his family, and, somewhere along the way, he lost himself.

The Iron Sheik really seems to believe that he always has to be the Iron Sheik. I think that he forgot how to be Khosrow Vaziri, the man born in 1943 in Tehran. The Sheik gets paid to be the Sheik, but beneath the crazy, surreal surface that gets on the radio or on YouTube and calls Hulk Hogan a “Hollywood blonde jobroni” and threatens to “humble” former wrestling colleagues by raping them is an old man who is sad and tired and who nobody truly knows. He doesn’t wave an Iranian flag; he wears a gold medal that he legitimately won at the 1971 U.S. Amateur Athletic Union Greco-Roman wrestling tournament. He doesn’t praise the Ayatollah Khomeini while calling Iran the “greatest country in world”; he talks about guarding the Shah of Iran, praying for his family after the Iranian Revolution and working as an assistant coach to the U.S. Olympic team in 1972 and 1976. He doesn’t wear curly, pointy boots or talk about breaking someone’s back with the Camel Clutch; he walks gingerly with the assistance of a cane in his New Balance sneakers and on knees and hips that need to be replaced due to decades of punishment. Most of all, he doesn’t yell non-sensically about humbling his enemies or talk with disdain about the United States (“hack-poot!”); he quietly talks about being a Muslim, being tired, about wanting to be back home in Atlanta, and, he sadly reminisces about his daughter, who was brutally murdered by her boyfriend in 2003.

And, yes, even when reflecting quietly and trying to remember about life as Khosrow, the man behind the Iron Sheik also still reminds us about beating Bob Backlund for the “Double-yoo Double-yoo Heff” championship in “Madison Square Garden! Most famous arena in the world!”. And when that happens, he is back to being the Iron Sheik.

I don’t know if he loses himself in his character because he wants to escape, or if he loses himself in his character because that’s the only place he can find himself. Either way, I think that the Iron Sheik character is pretty much the furthest thing away from who Khosrow Vaziri truly is, and that is exactly why he spends so much time there.

•••

I already knew that I was going to meet the Iron Sheik when I flew to Philadelphia in May 2006. It was the first time I had been on an airplane in quite some time, and as my flight flew into darkness and we headed from day-to-night all I could think about was how it seems like the sun sets more quickly when you’re above the clouds.

There was a lot of excitement about my trip because I was visiting friends, seeing Philadelphia (a city I had always wanted to visit) for the first time, and looking forward to doing a couple of days of good radio before partying at my friend Chris’s big birthday celebration. I didn’t think much about the Iron Sheik. Like many people, I had largely forgotten about the Sheik until Chris recently began having him call-in to the radio show as a guest. The Sheik was entertaining, but also seemed completely out of his mind 88% of the time. The other 12% of the time, I just couldn’t understand what he was saying. I figured that meeting the Iron Sheik would be memorable, but for all of the wrong reasons.

My flight arrived in Philadelphia just before 10:00 PM, and I quickly claimed my luggage and turned my cell phone on to find out where another friend of mine, Thomas, was waiting for me. Thomas answered and said that he was at a restaurant and that there weren’t any interns from WYSP available to pick me up from the airport, either. Thomas said that I could just catch a cab and WYSP would reimburse me, so I said I would do that and asked where I should go. He said, “We’re at a restaurant called LaScala’s on Chestnut with the Iron Sheik. Meet us here — and hurry up, the Sheik is waiting for you.”

I assured Thomas that I would hurry and after hanging up, I thought, “The Sheik is waiting for you”? That sounded almost ominous, as if I were late for a meeting with Osama bin Laden. “The Sheik is waiting for you”. I definitely hoped that the NSA wasn’t listening in to cell phone conversations at Philadelphia International Airport at that very moment. I also wondered why the hell the Iron Sheik was waiting for me — a guy he had never met, spoken to, or heard of. I found a cab driver and told him where I needed to get to, and that I needed to get there quickly. I had been looking forward to taking in some of the sights of Philadelphia — one of the most history-filled cities in the United States and the birthplace of the Constitution — but not like the tour I got from my taxi ride from airport to the center city district. I’m not sure if the lights and sights of the city were racing past us, or if we were racing past the lights and sights of the city, but the cab driver followed through on his promise to get me to LaScala’s quickly despite Philadelphia’s old, narrow streets. The impact of seeing Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell is certainly diminished when you drive past them in a cab at 50 mph over cobblestone. Nonetheless, the cab driver got me to LaScala’s as quickly as possible and after giving him a nice tip for taking me on a rocket ride through Philly, I headed inside.

LaScala’s looks like the last place you would meet a professional wrestler. It is a nice upscale Italian restaurant in the Center City neighborhood of downtown Philadelphia and they were nice enough to stay open later than usual for our visit that night. When I walked in, I saw Chris and Thomas at a big table with some people from the radio station WYSP, an avid listener/friend of the show named Constantine, our friend “the Reverend” Bob Levy, and, of course, the Iron Sheik. The Sheik was accompanied by his “business manager” whose name was “Double P”. Double P was, as you might imagine, somewhat shady, very sweaty, and nearly bursting through his button-up shirt with a large stomach.

The Iron Sheik was finishing up a large plate of pasta and drinking beer. He had a prominent beer-belly that seemed to be working against him as he attacked his food, and he had a replica of the WWE World Heavyweight Championship belt draped over his shoulder. Around his neck was a necklace with a medal attached to what looked like a cross made out of yellow electrical tape. The medal was dull and tarnished by age and years of handling, but when I looked at it later I realized that it was a gold medal from the 1971 AAU Greco-Roman Wrestling Championship. That’s not professional wrestling, by the way. That is real, amateur, Olympic-style wrestling. In the United States in 1971, there were no better Greco-Roman wrestlers in the 180.5 pound weight class than Khosrow Vaziri.

Oddly, the Sheik also seemed to think he was in Pittsburgh. Not just at the dinner, either. Over the next couple of days, he either forgot he was in Philadelphia, thought he was in Pittsburgh, or just didn’t care. At dinner, the Sheik wore a Pittsburgh Steelers beanie and a shirt paying tribute to Pittsburgh’s Kurt Angle, a former Olympic gold medalist and WWE wrestler. Many times throughout the next few days, the Sheik mentioned how much he loved Pittsburgh and Kurt Angle and Bruno Sammartino (another wrestling legend and Pittsburgh native). People corrected him many times over the next few days or pointed out that he was in Philadelphia, not Pittsburgh, but the Sheik kept mentioning Pittsburgh and I could never figure out why. He was in Philly at that moment, currently lives in Atlanta, spent most of his years in the U.S. in Minneapolis, and was born in Tehran, but the Iron Sheik just seemed to love Pittsburgh.

The Sheik could have left the dinner earlier, but Chris had told him that I wanted to meet him, so he said he would stay until I arrived. When I walked in to LaScala’s, the Sheik stood up and said, “This must be An-TONEE!”. He never called me “Anthony”; it was always “An-TONEE!”, and always with the exclamation point. When there are a lot of people around, the Iron Sheik still speaks as if he is trying to be heard over the boos of 23,000 in Madison Square Garden. I laughed and walked over to greet the Sheik before I even said hello to my friends because this poor guy was 63 years old — 50 years of which were spent beating his own body up in amateur and professional wrestling — had spent all day traveling, and yet was nice enough to hang out a little longer because Chris said I wanted to meet him.

When I shook his hand, I expected him to give me some tough-guy handshake. I knew he had a legitimate background in amateur wrestling and spent years wrestling professionally, so I figured he would give me a strong handshake like my grandfather used to give me. The kind of handshake that makes you wish you had just gone for the fist-bump. Instead, I was greeted with a soft, gentle handshake. He barely even squeezed my hand. I thought that maybe he had an injury or some sort of arthritic condition from years in the ring, but he told me later that the gentle handshake is kind of like a secret handshake of sorts amongst professional wrestlers. It’s called a “worker’s handshake”. In professional wrestling, the wrestlers basically put their safety in the hands of the people they work with and trust them to take care of them and not hurt them in the ring. With the gentle “worker’s handshake”, one wrestler or “worker” is telling his colleague “I work gently. I will not hurt you. You can trust that I will take care of you and protect your body in the ring.” I found that very interesting.

I also found it interesting that the Iron Sheik is very famous. People walking by LaScala’s would do a double-take when looking into the restaurant and knock on the window when they realized that they were looking at the Iron Sheik. The Sheik was definitely big in professional wrestling in the 1980’s and even appeared on Saturday morning cartoons, but I was surprised by how many people almost instantly recognized him. He would wave happily when he was recognized by fans, as if their recognition of him validated every silly thing he ever had to do in the ring. I think the Sheik was genuinely excited to be back in the spotlight, even if it was a much smaller spotlight than he was used to in the 1980’s.

Although I’d like to think that the Iron Sheik waited at LaScala’s later than he intended in order to meet me, that ended up not being completely true. It turns out that the Sheik likes beer, and at LaScala’s the radio station was paying for the beer. The Sheik also likes “medicine”, as he calls it. This love of “medicine” actually got him fired from the World Wrestling Federation in 1987 when he was arrested on drug charges along with on-screen rival Jim Duggan. The Sheik has struggled throughout the years with substance abuse problems, and this is why I started feeling sorry for him after I met him.

As funny as he could be, and as outrageous as the things are that he says, the truth is that he is under the influence of a lot of things when he says them. He is not Khosrow Vaziri, the quiet, proud Muslim. He is the Iron Sheik. He is the guy with the pointy boots and the curly mustache and the Iranian flag. He goes into character and cuts promos and gets lost in these random, hysterical, bizarre monologues because it is what the fans have always expected him to do. The Iron Sheik is never very far away from Khosrow Vaziri, but Khosrow is definitely still there, too. You can see it in his eyes when he starts to get lost in the Iron Sheik character. You can see that he would be ready to retire the gimmick and quit being a cartoon character if he knew how to be Khosrow all the time. You can see that he just doesn’t know how to do that.

And that’s why he needs his “medicine”, which is why he was still at LaScala’s when I arrived. Because someone was tracking down some “medicine” for him. So, until then, he was part-Khosrow, part-Sheik, and drank his beer and ate his pasta and took photos with us while regaling us with stories about life on the road.

When the “medicine man” arrived with his “medicine”, he got lost in the “medicine” and then got lost in the Sheik character again. Then he left. Dinner with the Sheik was over and I was mesmerized by this man and this character with all these stories and who had been all these different places. In the short time I spent with him that night, he seemed to be so many different people that I was fascinated.

Come to think of it, maybe that’s why he thought he was in Pittsburgh. If I didn’t know who I was, I wouldn’t know where I am, either.

•••

Attempt for a moment to imagine this: You are standing on a 20’ x 20’ stage surrounded by 23,000 people screaming at you, booing you, reacting to who you are and what you are doing. You are wearing spandex tights and shiny boots, but you are not wearing a shirt. A spotlight is shining on you and you are inciting this crowd, eliciting exactly the type of reaction that you want to receive from them. You are the ringmaster in your own personal circus and the people who have their eyes on you have paid to see you pretend to fight another person dressed in gaudy underwear for anywhere from 15 to 60 minutes.

You are in control. You hold 23,000 people in your hand in the most famous arena in the world, Madison Square Garden. You are on the stage in the biggest city in the United States. At that moment, more people are watching you wave an Iranian flag and curse their hero than in any musical theater on Broadway. You are in control and it is addictive. It is a drug that you love, that you seek, that you need. It defines you and always will, no matter what you’ve done in the past, and no matter what you’ll do in the future. But, for that moment, in that arena, in that city, you are in control.

Your job is to lie to people and to trick people. You are surrounded by real-life cartoon characters. Some of them wear masks, some of them wear facepaint, some of them are incredibly muscular specimens, some of them are just freakishly fat. Some are great actors, some are great athletes, and some are neither actors nor athletes. These are your co-workers. These are your colleagues. When you work with them, though, they are considered your opponent.

Your job is to make it appear as if you are trying to hurt your opponent as badly as possible at the exact same time that you are actually trying to protect your opponent from getting hurt. Your goal is to pin the opponent for three seconds or make him submit to a referee that isn’t sanctioned by any athletic commission anywhere in the world. Your goal is to win every match, yet there are no standings and nobody keeps a record of who wins and loses.

Your job is to make people believe that you are solving a problem that you have with someone else in a 20’ x 20’ wrestling ring, breaking numerous criminal laws while your body somehow breaks the laws of physics in the process. You bounce off of ropes that are not actually ropes, but steel cables wrapped in rubber which have no give. You jump off turnbuckles that have no springs. You land flat on your back on a thick piece of plywood covered with a thin piece of canvas which is only there for aesthetic purposes. The plywood hurts and it has no give; it is constructed on top of steel beams which are supported by steel columns.

You wear a championship belt that you didn’t really win. You don’t get paid less money for losing. You sometimes have a manager who doesn’t actually manage anything, but might help you cheat at something that has no legitimate rulebook. There is a formula that you rarely deviate from. You will spend your match pretending that your left leg or left arm or left something is injured. You will try to injure something on the left side of your opponent’s body. You and your co-workers never hurt the right sides of your bodies for some reason, but no one really notices that.

You “sell” your apparent injury to the fans because selling results in money. You tell a story every night that builds up to a big conclusion because good storytelling results in money. Sometimes, if the situation calls for it, you will bleed because bleeding equals money, red equals green. Your blood is not fake. It is not ketchup, it is not red paint, it is not corn syrup and red food coloring. Your blood is real. Your cut is self-inflicted with a sliver of a razor blade that you hide somewhere on your body and use to slice across your forehead. You will have scars on your forehead for the rest of your life, but those scars equaled money, so those scars are not regrets.

When you are in that ring, you are in control and you are experiencing a rush, a high, a feeling that cannot be replicated. You perform before packed houses and live crowds and you are an artist. Your profession is ridiculed, people think you are silly or cartoonish, but you are an artist. You and your colleagues are actors and athletes and stunt men. You are masters of improvisation and you are storytellers and you feel like you are on top of the world from the moment you enter the arena to the moment you leave the ring and return backstage. You head back to the dressing room and shake the hand of the man you just pretended to fight, you get congratulatory slaps on the back by your colleagues, you get complimented on your match or your performance by your supervisors. You are in control.

Then you go back to your hotel, in a city you’ve been to dozens of times; a city that is familiar, yet not home; a city that is distant even while you are present. You are in your hotel room and there are no more screaming fans, no more colleagues, no more noises. You are surrounded by a crippling silence — a silence which amplifies all of your other senses, spotlights your thoughts, magnifies your demons. You are confronted by fear — a fear about who you are and what you might become, a fear that scares the blood into rushing through your veins at abnormal speeds, a fear that forces your heart to race, your brain to get lost. You are losing control.

You are a professional wrestler and you make a lot of money, but you travel 350 days out of the year. You have a show each day where you put your body on the line and do indeed get hurt and then you travel to the next town and do it again. You have to do this 350 times a year in order to get paid. There is no vacation time, no off-season.

There is no employee’s union in professional wrestling. There are no healthcare benefits in professional wrestling. There is no pension plan in professional wrestling. You are an independent contractor. You pay for your own air travel, you rent your own car, you pay for your own hotel room, you pay for your own meals, and you do this 350 times a year because it is what you have to do — what you need to do — in order to get paid. You do not have a guaranteed contract. You could get hurt and get fired. You could get boring and get fired. You could simply not look as good as you used to look or be as entertaining as you used to be and get fired.

You love it, though. You need it. It is a drug. The adrenaline rush of performing without a net in front of thousands of people wearing your merchandise or your opponent’s merchandise cannot be replicated by anything synthetic or substantive. It is an experience you have to seek out every night and wake up seeking again the next morning.

You are hurting constantly, so you take pills to mask the pain. You are hyped up on adrenaline after your show, which usually ends late at night, so you find something to do while you come down. You go eat, you go to the gym, you might travel to the next town, and when you get into your hotel, you take more pills or smoke marijuana or drink alcohol to calm down and sleep. You struggle to wake up, so you take pills or snort cocaine to awaken. Once you are awake, you realize that you are hurting once again and it’s back to the pain pills. This happens every day and every night for the remainder of your career, probably for the rest of your life.

Your job is to lie to people. Your job is to be someone you are not, to convince people of things that are not real, to do things that are seemingly impossible. When you are trying to be this other person who does these strange things, you are in control. When it is time to be yourself and live life normally, you lose control. You don’t know who you are. You don’t even know who you want to be.

This is the Iron Sheik’s dilemma. As he has aged, his ability to wrestle has diminished, if not completely evaporated. Physically, he is unable to perform in a wrestling ring because his body is broken-down from decades of punishment. In 2001, the Sheik participated in a battle royal at WrestleMania in Houston’s Astrodome with other retired or semi-retired wrestlers. The goal of a battle royal is to be the last man standing in the ring after every other wrestler has been thrown over the top rope and eliminated from the match. Winning the match was probably the last wrestling highlight of the Iron Sheik’s career and he stood victorious with a smile on his face after the match in front of 70,000 fans. However, the Sheik won the match for one reason only — because he was physically unable to be thrown over the top rope and to the arena floor due to his many injuries. The Iron Sheik could barely walk in 2001. When I met him in 2006, he was forced to get around using a cane.

Today, the Iron Sheik is still booked by independent wrestling companies throughout the United States. He is featured on radio shows and internet sites. He is arguably a bigger star in 2010 than he was in 1985. Yet, this is because he is a spectacle — a train-wreck at times. He gets drunk and curses former colleagues, threatens people, says outlandish things that are either belligerent rants or warning signs. There are more videos on YouTube of the Iron Sheik doing and saying something outrageous than there are of the Iron Sheik wrestling.

The thing is, I don’t know how much of that Iron Sheik is Khosrow Vaziri losing control and succumbing to his demons and how much of it is Khosrow Vaziri giving people what they want. Is he crazy or is he just compensating for his inability to wrestle to earn money by saying such insane things that people want to pay him in order to hear what he might say? In professional wrestling, “working” is the act of tricking a “mark” or fan into believing something or suspending their disbelief enough to be entertained by something. Is the Iron Sheik still just “working” everyone after all these years?

I didn’t spend enough time with him to figure it out, but I do know this. When I met the Iron Sheik, he was kind and generous, soft-spoken and quiet. When I spoke to him during commercial breaks, he wasn’t yelling about putting people in the Camel Clutch or calling Hulk Hogan a “faggot”. When I spoke to him during commercial breaks, he told me about his daughter, who was strangled by her boyfriend in 2003. He was sad while talking about it, obviously affected, and stated that he wished nothing more than to get revenge for his daughter’s murder. I expected him to rant about grabbing his daughter’s murderer and detailing everything he wanted to do to the man, but instead, the Sheik quietly pointed out that he knows he can’t do what he hoped to do, but that he is a Muslim and that he truly believed in an eye for an eye. It wasn’t bluster or bravado; it was a grieving father wanting revenge.

And, then, the “ON-AIR” light brightened and the Sheik entered the radio studio and he was the loud, wild, frantic Iron Sheik yelling about beating Bob Backlund for the “double-yoo-double-yoo-heff” championship in the “Madison Square Garden. Most famous arena in world!”. It was fascinating and unusual, and I don’t know which side of the Sheik was the character. If he was “working” us, he was a magician.

On the night of my friend Chris’s birthday party, over 1,000 people packed a bar in Philadelphia for a live broadcast, comedy show, musical performance, and special appearance by the Iron Sheik. The Sheik was positioned at a table near the stage and he sold t-shirts and photographs to a rabid crowd of radio show listeners. I was roaming the bar with a wireless microphone throughout the night, but one of my main responsibilities was interviewing the Sheik every once in a while and making sure he was doing okay.

I had taken a cab to the bar with the Sheik and his manager and he was quiet, thoughtful Khosrow during the ride. The Sheik was obviously tired and obviously not looking forward to four hours inside a packed bar with rabid Philadelphians surrounding him. Twenty years earlier, a sold-out Philadelphia Spectrum would have excited him, but this was a bar gig with people who weren’t even old enough to know what the Iron Sheik was before he was a punchline. In the cab, the Sheik told me about his home in Atlanta and how he didn’t get to spend enough time there. He gave me one of his t-shirts. I was grateful for his generosity and was nice enough to resist telling him that I couldn’t imagine a situation where I would willingly wear a white shirt with a giant photo of the Iron Sheik in wrestling tights, an open robe and a kaffiyeh.

I thought it would be rough for the Sheik at the birthday party, and it was, but no one who met him or listened to him or watched him ever knew this. Throughout the night, Sheik signed hundreds of autographs and took scores of photographs. He would grab the microphone from me and rally the crowd or get the fans to make noise. He seemed energized and capable of being ringmaster for as long as he was needed. He was — without a doubt — the Iron Sheik.

As the night drew to a close, the crowds did not get any smaller, but the Sheik was exhausted. He continued signing autographs and greeting fans, but whispered to me at one point, “Sheik needs to get sleep, brother.” When he left after four hours at the party, I helped clear a path for him through the crowd of alcohol-soaked listeners and the Sheik looked just like he did when he’d enter an arena in the early-1980’s and interact with fans. He shook hands and commented to people and kept the act going, but would whisper every few seconds “I follow you, brother.”

When we finally got backstage, the Sheik sat down on a couch and said, “I am getting too old for the shows” and at that moment, he looked every moment of his 63 years. He leaned his scarred forehead against the handle of his cane. He pulled on the ends of his famous mustache. He looked weary and grandfatherly, lonely and lost. He didn’t look like a cartoon character. He looked every part that he had ever played all rolled into one elderly, broken-down, exhausted man.

I knew then that he was Khosrow Vaziri. Whatever he might say, whomever he might pretend to be, he knew who he was and wanted to be. He had “worked” everyone. He made them believe that he was the crazy Iron Sheik because that was his job and his job was to trick people. Really, though, he was Khosrow Vaziri and, for the first time, I called him by that name.

“Khosrow,” I said, “are you ready to go back to the hotel?”

He looked at me with tired eyes, his body language shifted upright, his head bolted upwards from the handle of his can, and he started to stand.

“Sheik needs his medicine,” he said. “Can you find a medicine man, brother?”

I could only laugh. Just when I thought I had figured him out, the Iron Sheik had “worked” me. I guess I should have known better. After all, the man is in a Hall of Fame devoted to the best tricksters in a business known for trickery. If he can’t figure himself out, I have no hope for doing so. My only hope is that he finds the answer someday, even if he makes us believe otherwise.