PRESIDENTS III: HARDING-OBAMA
Warren G. Harding
Harding routinely tops lists of the worst US presidents, which is even more impressive when you realize he only had the job for two years – he died of a heart attack in 1923. He was a former newspaper publisher who won his election in a landslide and mostly let Congress take the lead as far as governing went. Problem was, he’d surrounded himself with the most corrupt administration in US history. Officials were caught in scandal after scandal – bribery, embezzlement, and selling off war surplus goods, and at one point national oil reserves, for personal profit. Oh, and one time he lost the White House’s china collection in a hand of poker.
It may have been the Roaring Twenties, but the president was famously quiet and sleepy, and that’s all anyone seems to say about him, probably because he didn’t actually do much of note while in office. He seems like a “don’t fix what isn’t broken” kind of guy, and in the 1920’s the US was at peace and the economy wasn’t broken (yet). So here are some stories about him being quiet and/or sleepy.
When Harding died, messengers tracked down Coolidge in bed in his dad’s farm in Vermont. He woke up, was sworn in at 2:47 AM, and then he went back to sleep.
Once, at a dinner party, the young woman seated next to Coolidge told him she’d bet someone she could get him to say at least three words to her. He replied, “You lose.”
He was once in the audience of a Marx Brothers show. Groucho Marx shouted, “Isn’t it past your bedtime, Calvin?”
When he died, Dorothy Parker quipped “How could they tell?” (if you haven’t heard of Dorothy Parker, look her up – I don’t know how so much wit could fit in one person).
Here’s another frequenter of Worst Presidents lists, but I think he gets a bad rap. It’s not his fault that the economy collapsed, what, a year into his term? But I’ll get to that. Before he was president, Herbert Hoover was a super impressive guy – an orphaned son of a blacksmith who became a brilliant mining engineer and earned millions (which was even more impressive back then). He became famous during World War One for devoting himself to evacuating American refugees from Europe and distributing food to folks whom the war had left foodless. From there, he spent a decade or so in government before winning the presidency.
Something like eight months after his inauguration, the US stock market crashed, a bunch of banks collapsed, and the Great Depression began. It was the worst economic disaster in US history. I don’t know how much to blame Hoover for how bad it got. It’s not that he didn’t make it worse – he probably did – but I don’t think anyone really knew what to do. In any case, it didn’t take long before the shantytowns were “Hoovervilles” and newspapers were “Hoover blankets.” No surprise that he lost the next election.
ASIDE: Black Friday vs. Black Tuesday
I’m not pointing any fingers, but in case there’s any confusion (Ok I admit it I was confused):
Black Friday is the day after Thanksgiving, when Americans enjoy full-contact bargain-hunting and occasional trampling deaths. It’s traditionally considered the start of the Christmas shopping season.
Black Tuesday refers to October 29, 1929, when the New York stock market crashed and a bunch of people went broke. It’s traditionally considered the start of the Great Depression.
Franklin Roosevelt left a big mark on US history, partially because he served for four (well, three and a half) terms and partially because those terms coincided with two of the most momentous crises of the twentieth century: the Great Depression and the Second World War.
He was smart, attractive, extremely wealthy, and well-connected, all of which helped as he rose up through the ranks of public office. But then he got polio. Thanks to decades of vaccination, polio is really rare now, and people have mostly forgotten how bad it could be. In most cases, it was sort of like a flu, but if it made it to someone’s nervous system (like, say, Roosevelt’s) they’d be paralyzed, permanently.
From what I’ve read, he was devastated by the whole thing, and for a while he disappeared from public life. But within a few years, that devastation turned to determination and within the decade he was back in public again, first as the governor of New York, and then, four years later, as president. What’s interesting to me is that pictures like this are really rare – and from what I’ve heard, that’s in large part thanks to journalists keeping the whole “crippled” thing relatively quiet. More often you’ll see pictures like this which almost look normal until you notice how tightly he’s holding onto that dude’s arm.
So what did he do during his presidency? He came in at the height of the Great Depression and basically tried everything, all at once, until the economy started working again. This meant Social Security, taxes, new laws for banks and utilities, and tons of government jobs for the unemployed. A big chunk of current US infrastructure was built during the 30’s, mostly because building it meant jobs.
When the Second World War hit, he acquiesced to public opinion and kept the US officially neutral, but did everything he could to help short of actual military involvement. He sent absolutely huge amounts of aid to Great Britain and cut off exports of oil to Japan, which is the main reason Japan attacked Hawaii, which is the main reason the US fought in World War II, which is the main reason that like, a dozen video games each year take place then).
Man, this entry is getting stupid-long. But so was Roosevelt’s time in office. Eventually he died, and his vice-president took over.
The big thing to know about Harry Truman is that he ordered atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Whether he was right to do so has been debated pretty much endlessly since then. Broadly speaking, the argument is over whether Japan would have surrendered without them, how many Americans would have died, how devastating they were, and how much any of that mattered. I won’t weigh in here, except to point out that as terrible as the atomic bombs were, they weren’t necessarily the worst bombings in World War II.
The other big thing to know about Harry Truman is that he set the initial tone of the Cold War, sometimes continuing Roosevelt’s plans, and sometimes on his own. He helped create the United Nations, approved the Mashall Plan to help rebuild Europe, established NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, i.e. America & Friends’ Anti-Commie Club), and laid out the West’s general doctrine that every country had to choose between democracy and communism.
The other other big thing to know about Harry Truman is that his middle name was literally “S.”
Oh, and not that it matters, but check out what he wrote to a critic who panned his daughter’s singing.
Eisenhower was a decorated World War II general with a reassuring demeanor and a love of golf. He spent most of his presidency dealing with the rapidly escalating Cold War, both at home with Joe McCarthy’s Secret List o’ Commies, and abroad with a big pile of nuclear bombs and a smaller pile of CIA operations. One of those, the CIA-backed coup in Iran, would come back to bite the US in a big way.
Oh man, and I almost forgot the Korean War. He ended it.
John F. Kennedy
I don’t really get the love for Kennedy. I mean, ok, he got the US through the Cuban Missile Crisis in one non-irradiated piece, but as far as I can tell that’s it. Oh, and he said the US would put a man on the moon. And he launched a failed invasion of Cuba. And he slept with lots and lots of women. But honestly? I think his popularity is more about what he represented than what he did – he was young, and good-looking, and happened to be in office just after the more repressive parts of the 50’s and just before the really violent parts of the 60’s. And then he was murdered.
And now, 50-odd years later, he’s this vaguely-defined martyr to a bright, exciting, optimistic moment in American history when folks had jobs, cars had fins, and Forrest Gump played football.
Lyndon B. Johnson
Lyndon Johnson was the ultimate political operator. He was the youngest Senate majority leader in US history, and one of the most effective, with a reputation for charming, manipulating, and bullying folks into doing what he wanted. Over the course of his career he swung from liberal to conservative and back again enough times that I don’t think anyone was 100% sure where he stood. Johnson became vice president under Kennedy, and then president when Kennedy was killed.
He started by pushing through legislation that Kennedy had promised, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which banned most of the ways that southern states had kept black folks from voting. But then he turned the Vietnam War from a relatively small thing into the biggest military disaster the US had ever seen, and that’s what ultimately destroyed him. Facing protests and riots at the end of his term, he chose not to run for another.
You can’t mention Nixon without mentioning Watergate, a scandal so big that it became its own suffix. The triggering event was a break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters, paid for with Nixon’s campaign funds. Which was bad, but not nearly as bad as all the other stuff that came out during the investigation – lying, cheating, and the use of the FBI, CIA, and IRS to harass and spy on people Nixon didn’t like. He managed to stay president for a little while longer, but eventually resigned in disgrace.
I could talk about other things he did – ending the Vietnam War, lowering tensions with China and the USSR – but I don’t think any of that is nearly so interesting as this photo of Richard Nixon and Elvis Presley on the day Elvis showed up at the White House asking to be an undercover agent in the Drug War. There’s a movie about it, but I haven’t seen it yet.
Gerald Ford shouldn’t have even been president. I don’t mean he did a bad job or anything, just that he sort of came out of nowhere – he became Nixon’s vice-president after his previous vice-president had to resign for corruption that somehow had nothing to do with Watergate, and then less than a year later Nixon resigned too.
He’s mostly remembered nowadays for pardoning Nixon, which was wildly unpopular but, from what I’ve heard, probably helped heal the nation more than not pardoning would have. But he was a really cool guy in his own right – over his lifetime, he was a model, a naval officer, a lawyer, a park ranger, an NFL prospect (he turned down offers from the Green Bay Packers and the Chicago Bears), and probably one of the most honest, honorable men ever to serve in the White House. Oh, and one time he fell down some stairs.
Jimmy Carter had a really bad time as president. He was a kind-hearted former peanut farmer, elected in large part because people were still so pissed off about Watergate. He’s mostly remembered for (failing to solve) the Iran Hostage Crisis, which was – well, remember when I mentioned Eisenhower’s CIA coup in Iran, and how it’d come back to bite the US? Here’s where it came back to bite the US: the Iranian Revolution, during which protestors took over the US Embassy and held its employees hostage for a year and a half. Carter signed off on a military operation to rescue them, but it didn’t work, and that (along with an ailing economy) pretty much sealed his fate in the next election. I also read that once, in 1969, he reported seeing a UFO.
In retrospect it makes sense that an actor could be president – getting elected
If there’s one thing I learned from this seminal documentary, it’s that no one thought an actor would be president. In retrospect, though, it sort of makes sense. TV appearances are a huge part of getting elected, and who’s better for TV than an actor? I don’t know if he was liked so much because of his successes as president or because of his raw charisma – probably both – but for decades afterwords he was held up as, like, the patron saint of the Republican party. He cut taxes, grew the military, and spoke forcefully against the USSR. He also turned the US from the world’s biggest creditor to the world’s biggest debtor, but hey, what’s a little debt between friends?
Reagan was the oldest president to date, and it’s come out since then that he might not have been all there toward the end. He was formally diagnosed with Alzheimer’s six years later, but it’s a progressive disease so who knows when it started?
George H. W. Bush
The first Bush had one of the best resumes in presidential history – the youngest pilot in the US Navy during World War II, congressman, UN ambassador, US envoy to China, director of the CIA, and then vice-president under Ronald Reagan, before being elected president himself. And he served during the fall of the Soviet Union, which marked probably the biggest change in the US’s place in the world since the Second World War. As I understand it, he said he wouldn’t raise taxes, and then raised taxes, and then lost the next election.
He also presided over the Gulf War, aka Iraq War #1, which everyone seems to agree was all-around better than the sequel.
The weirdest story I found about him is about the time he threw up into the Japanese Prime Minister’s lap. That’s basically the whole story, but now “Bushusuru” is a slang term in Japan for vomiting.
ASIDE: On Recent History
So far on Veritable Hokum, I’ve tried to avoid topics from the last twenty years, because I think we’re terrible at knowing what’s going to be important while it happens, and even when we’re right we rarely know exactly how. But who’d bother with a list of presidents that stops in ’96? I guess what I’m saying is, if you think the entries on Clinton, Bush II, or Obama are too short/ignorant/biased, check back in 2021, 2029, and 2037, respectively, and maybe I’ll have fixed it.
So we’ll start with the obvious: Bill Clinton slept with an intern, claimed he didn’t, and was almost booted from the presidency for it. I’m not saying it’s ok that he did it, or lied about it, or kinda sorta technically didn’t lie, depending on what your definition of “is” is but I’ve just spent a few weeks reading about presidents, and I’ve actually lost count of how many had mistresses. Some of them even had the Secret Service helping them hide it from their wives. Kennedy alone probably outdid some medieval warlords. What’s interesting to me is how far the culture drifted between the 60’s (“Dozens of girls? Keep it quiet, but hey, good for him!”) and the 90’s (“A blowjob? Off with his head!”).
I think, in a few decades, Bill Clinton’s years will look like a sort of historical intermission, a bizarrely peaceful break between the end of the Cold War and the beginning of the War on Terror. The economy was booming and people weren’t afraid of getting nuked for the first time in like half a century. If only they’d known…
George W. Bush
Bush hadn’t been in office one year before a bunch of a-holes flew planes into the World Trade Center. Bush responded by attacking the folks that did it (War in Afghanistan) and some folks that had nothing to do with it but lived sort of nearby (Iraq War #2). And if I have to guess, I’d say that’s what folks will remember about his presidency in another few decades. Well, that, and the huge recession right at the end.
Barack Obama is still in office, so I’m not sure what to say about him. Not because I don’t have opinions – I do – but so does everyone else, and no one seems to agree, and I like to at least maintain a veneer of impartiality on this site. So for now I’ll list some facts that (I hope) everyone can agree on:
Barack Obama is the first non-white president. He came into office facing an enormous recession at home and unpopular but seemingly-endless wars abroad, and how he’s dealt with those have defined most of his two terms in office. He seemed as surprised as everyone else when he won a Nobel Prize for being president-while-black. He collects Spiderman comics. He is an American citizen. He has a lovely singing voice.
And now, just to finish up, here are some
Folks Who Sound Like, But Have Never Been, Presidents
An inventor, scientist, businessman, philosopher, American foundign father, and the single most common character in TV ads for Philadelphia-area car dealerships.
Another American founding father, and a totally unrelated beer company.
Yet another American founding father, one of the most influential men of the Revolutionary era, who is now the subject of a Broadway play you can see for a mere $1000.
George Washington Carver
The multi-talented scientist who invented peanut butter.
A fictional character from a 1970’s sitcom.
J. Edgar Hoover
The first director of the FBI and a very scary man.
A very famous funk musician.
The last car that John F. Kennedy ever rode in.
Alright, that’s a wrap! Next up will be something about Greek Tragedies, because good lord they’re ridiculous. I’m not sure if it’ll be next week or the week after but I’ll try to get it up relatively soon?