Sunday, April 09, 2006

past POTUSs

My brother and I were chatting about the presidency and the quality of our leaders, present and past. Naturally we got to wondering how long it's been since we've had an administration this flawed, this corrupt. If Nixon hadn't been so photo-perfect for blame with those jowls, the beady little eyes, and the five o'clock shadow, we'd have to look much further back in our history. Warren Harding, my brother thinks. There are some obvious parallels.

But that's not the point of this story; I can't bear to blog about the current political situation, nor Sy Hersh's article that's about to appear in the New Yorker. Let's leave that to those with insider information, people who are privy to leaks (privies and leaks do seem to go together). Let's just say, it's interesting to go through America's short history of leaders and play the eye doctor game: better or worse, better or worse, better or worse.

Jon finds the mustacheod Grover Cleveland -- the lone Democrat to serve as President in the latter half of the 19th century -- to be underrated. And of course, there's the irresistable tidbit that he served two non-contiguous terms. Plus, from my point of view, he looks more like a walrus than any other American president. That surely puts him in both the better and the highly underrated categories.

Who, we wondered, served in that term that interrupted Cleveland's two? Since Wikipedia was down (and millions of students were no doubt facing incompletes on their term papers), I decided to take a look at Why not? That'd be a place where you'd find a list of POTUSs, don't you think?

Indeed. There's a list of past presidents, which quickly tells us that the answer is Benjamin Harrison. Another hirsute man, short at 5' 6", and not in the least bit walrus-y. But I digress. The point of the story is the look at the US Presidents you get from

Notice anything weird about the Presidential portraits? Young G.W. is the only one who found the need to have an American flag as a backdrop; he's got a much bigger smile than the others, as if he's awakened from a good night's sleep and doesn't have a care in the world. JFK's gaze is oddly cast down, something like that clue on the Abbey Road album cover that proved Paul McCartney was dead (in that case, Paul was the only one of the four without shoes). (I think the proof is that the real Paul McCartney was young and foolish rather than sanctimonious like the replacement Paul McCartney). LBJ cleaned up real nice.

But what you need to look at are the bios. For example, of the walrus-y Mr. Cleveland, it is said:

"A bachelor, Cleveland was ill at ease at first with all the comforts of the White House. "I must go to dinner," he wrote a friend, "but I wish it was to eat a pickled herring a Swiss cheese and a chop at Louis' instead of the French stuff I shall find."

Pickled herring? Perfect for a walrus.

And William McKinley, a president who was shot while in office, stood for "the full dinner pail" and "kept his ear so close to the ground that it was full of grasshoppers."

It's full of tidbits like this. No authorial credit can be found for these biographies either.

They're kinder to first ladies. There's a subtext of "stand by your man" and each was more gracious than can be imagined. No mention of the Republican cloth coat in Pat Nixon's bio. We don't get even a glimpse of pre-recovery Betty Ford (except to learn that she'd studied modern dance at Bennington and been a member of Martha Graham's troupe). Lady Bird, we learn, kept things running when LBJ had a major heart attack during his stint as Senate Majority Leader. No slouches among the first ladies.

Makes you wonder why they weren't the presidents.


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