Happy Presidents’ Day

The kids were scheduled to be out of school today to celebrate Presidents’ Day. Not sure how exactly to celebrate this day, because it seems an obscure holiday marked mainly by furniture sales. But it is a day for celebration, if not for the presidents than for the fact that school is indeed in session (sorry, teachers). Because of our recent snow day on a day during which there was no actual snow, we have to make up the holiday. My kids were royally bummed about this. Macy circumvented it all by waking up yesterday with a sore throat and a nasty cough; remnants of last week’s strep throat, I suppose. So she’s home after all, and Payton is ticked but working hard to be a good sport.

I’m embarrassed to say I don’t know much about our presidents. I’m particularly ill-educated about the early guys. My kids make up for it, though, and can help get me out of a jam if I need info on the founding fathers.

Payton & Macy are particularly well-versed on the leaders of the free world, past and present-day. Why? Because they’re above-average in every way, like all the kids who live in our suburban bubble, of course. No, really, because of this:

The presidential placemat.

We have one for the flags of the world, too. It’s not quite as valuable as the presidential one, but does come in handy during the Olympics when an athlete is identified by a tiny icon showing his/her country’s flag. Payton gets them every time. 

It hasn’t been used in a while because the kids have progressed, slightly, in their table manners and no longer need plastic sheeting and a power washer after every meal. But it looks like the flags placemat got put away before being sufficiently scrubbed and sanitized. Gross.

To distract my germophobe self from all the petrified crud living on that plastic, let’s get back to the presidents.

For my edification and your entertainment, I’ve listed a fact or two about our presidents. Some you may know, probably from watching “Cash Cab” which is where I find the most useful information these days.

George Washington: was the only prez to be unanimously elected. Upon his election, he only had one tooth. For real. His many dentures were made from human teeth, animal teeth, ivory and even lead, but not wood.

John Adams: our longest-living president. He died at age 90, damn near 91. He missed it by 118 days.

Thomas Jefferson: TJ gets a lot of press, but I wonder how many people know this: he wrote his own epitath and designed his own tombstone, but neither contained a reference to him having been a president.

James Madison: shortest president, at 5 foot 4. Also the lightest, at just 100 pounds. Teeny little thing. Tallest president? See Abe Lincoln. Heaviest: William Taft.

James Monroe: his daughter was the first White House bride, and he was the first US Senator to be elected president.

John Quincy Adams: swam nude every day in the Potomac River. Can you imagine present-day presidents doing that?? Where was the National Enquirer when we needed it? And aren’t you right now picturing this guy in the buff? Thought so. Of course he accomplished a lot of great things, and perhaps is our most pedigreed president, but now every time I hear his name, I’m going to think about him jumping in the Potomac in all his glory.

Andrew Jackson: had a great head of hair. Suffered a bullet wound near his heart in a duel at age 39 and carried that bullet until his death. Upon election, he granted government jobs to some 2,000 of his supporters and established the so-called “kitchen cabinet” of advisors. He was the first, and probably last, president to run a debt-free administration.

Martin Van Buren: first president to be born in the United States. He and his wife still spoke Dutch at home. Tried unsuccessfully to gain re-election 3 times, then gave up. Probably for the best.

William Henry Harrison: catchy name, and perhaps the only president for whom all 3 names are popular modern-day baby names. Sadly, was the first president to die while in office. He served just 30 days because of a nasty pneumonia. Glad there’s now a vaccine for that.

John Tyler: Harry S Truman’s great-uncle. He was disowned by his own party (the Whigs) because they didn’t like his financial policies.

James K. Polk: graduate of UNC. Survived a gallstone operation at age 17 with no anesthesia. Ugh.

Zachary Taylor: served in the army for 40 years and never voted before becoming president at age 62. Kept his army horse, Whitey, on the White House lawn, and tourists would pluck a hair from Whitey’s tail as a souvenir. Ouch!

Millard Fillmore: installed the first library, kitchen stove and bathtub in the White House. Refused an honorary degree from Oxford University because he was unable to read Latin and felt like a sham accepting a degree he couldn’t read.

Franklin Pierce: Installed central heating in the White House. Well, probably didn’t do it himself but had it done. He affirmed rather than swore his oath of office, for religious reasons. Gave his inaugural address from memory, without the aid of even one note card. Impressive.

James Buchanan: the only bachelor to ever occupy the White House. His niece, Harriet, took responsibility for the White House hostessing duties.

Abe Licoln: considered by historians to be our greatest prez, followed by G. Washington. Was not just the greatest, but also the first to wear a beard and the only president to hold a patent (for a boat-lifting device).

Andrew Johnson: was the youngest prez to be married, at age 18 to Eliza, aged 16. Was buried beneath a willow tree he planted himself that came from a shoot of a tree at Napoleon’s tomb. Try getting that through customs these days. He was also wasted at his inauguration as Lincoln’s VP, but had a good reason: he was sick with typhoid and self-medicating with booze.

Ulysses Grant: smoked 20 cigars a day (and died of throat cancer. Hmmmm.). Although he witnessed some of the bloodiest battles in history, he was grossed out by the sight of animal blood and couldn’t eat a rare steak. My kind of guy.

Rutherford Hayes: his wife was known as “Lemonade Lucy” because she refused to serve alcohol in the White House. He kept his campaign promise to only run for one term, and I’m sure the subsequent visitors to the White House weren’t nearly as thirsty as those who came during his term.

James Garfield: our first left-handed president who died from a blood infection caused by repeated probing for an assassin’s bullet. Oh, I how I hate infections.

Chester Arthur: His wife Ellen died before he took office so his sister Mary assumed hostessing duties. He was a night owl, enjoyed night clubs and entertained like a rock star. My favorite quote of his: “I am a president of the United States states but what I do in my private life is  my own damn business.” Amen, brother.

Grover Cleveland: only prez elected to two non-consecutive terms. He served as the 22nd and the 24th president.

Benjamin Harrison: quite the windbag. He made 140 different speeches in 30 days, and I don’t think he had a staff of speechwriters. He was also the second prez to become widowed.

William McKinley: was in terrible physical shape. So bad that his doctors believe that if he’d been fitter, he would have survived the assassination. Let that be a lesson to you, people.

Teddy Roosevelt: a great man, but an attention whore. He was known to want to be the bride at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral. Strange.

William Taft: lots to say about this guy. He was the only one (so far) to serve as both president and Chief Justice. He created the tradition of the prez throwing out the first pitch of the baseball season (and some of his followers needed to work on their windups to avoid looking like pansies). His wife planted the first cherry trees that now adorn the Washington, D.C. landscape and look so gorgeous in the spring. He was by far our fattest president, weighing well over 300 pounds. He got stuck in the White House bathtub the first time he used it and had to order a new one, after a crew of embarrassed staffers wrestled him out of the too-small one.

Woodrow Wilson: an avid golfer, he refused to let the D.C. winters stop him from playing his sport and used black golf balls in the snow. Clever. His second wife, Edith, was distantly related to Pochahontas.

Warren Harding: one of the meanest looking presidents, IMHO. Both of his parents were doctors yet still gave him the middle name “Gamaliel.” Odd. He was the first newspaper publisher to be elected president and was known to be patient with the press, offering lengthy press conferences. Liked burlesque shows and snuck off to them as prez. His great-grandmother was black. He was pretty stern looking, but I like this photo of him and his dog. In fact, I may have to also do a post on presidential pets.

Calvin Coolidge: punched the Boston mayor in the eye while he himself was governor. Nice. Required 9 hours of sleep and a 2- to 4-hour nap every day. How the hell did he get anything done?

Herbert Hoover: was the youngest member of Standford’s graduating class. He and Thomas Edison were named the two greatest engineers by Columbia University. A social butterfly, for the first three years of his tenure in the White House he dined alone just three times. He was the first prez to donate his salary to charity. He was also one of the most honored presidents, with 84 honorary degrees, 78 medals and keys to numerous cities.

Franklin Roosevelt: elected an unprecedented 4 times. Was the first prez to be shown on TV. Claims to have been related by blood or marriage to 11 former presidents.

Harry Truman: Lots of good stuff about him professionally, but here’s something you may not know: his mom was a Confederate sympathizer and refused to sleep in Lincoln’s bed during a White House visit. He was the first prez to use air travel across the country. To recognize his contribution to the health care system, President Johnson presented Mr. and Mrs. Truman with the very first Medicare cards. The “S” that serves as his middle initial isn’t short for anything, so if you see Harry S. Truman, with a period after the “S” you know it’s wrong. An old copyediting pet peeve of mine.

Dwight Eishenhower: Payton’s favorite president. In fact, when P was chosen to portray President George Bush in his first grade program, he was ticked that he couldn’t be Ike. I guess Ike wasn’t current enough to make the program. He is known for ordering the integration of Central High School in Little Rock in 1957. Good man. He was the last prez born in the 19th century and the first prez to be a licensed pilot. He served in both World Wars and was an excellent cook. This photo, by the way, is one of the few in existence that show Payton wearing long pants. Take a good look, people, because it is a rare sighting.

John Kennedy: youngest prez elected (43) and youngest prez to die (46). Was the only prez to serve in the Navy and to appoint a sibling to a cabinet position. Had he not been so young and handsome, his wife may well have eclipsed him in notoriety and popularity, not unlike Charles and Diana. Jackie O was the first lady most outspoken about disliking the term “first lady.”

Lyndon Johnson: I gotta like him because he’s a Texan, but he seemed like a jerk. I do like his War on Poverty (at least in theory), and his civil rights reforms. He was the first prez to reject his official portrait, saying it was the ugliest thing he ever saw. His wife wins the prize for first lady with the best name. Although Lady Bird wasn’t her real name (it was Claudia), a wet nurse or nanny or someone proclaimed she was pretty as a lady bird, and the name stuck. Charming.

Richard Nixon: graduated from Duke, so he can’t be all bad.

Gerald Ford: he was born Leslie Lynch King, Jr, but I’m not sure how he came to be known as Gerald Ford. Need to check up on that, but this post is already stretching on and on. Plus, I need to save room for this: he and Betty were both models before they were married, and he campaigned for Congress on their wedding day. She was a patient woman. Or maybe that’s why she needed to drink. Both of the assassination attempts against him were committed by women. Women today owe Betty a big debt of gratitude as she was a big player in removing the stigma from a breast cancer diagnosis. Here she is with her hubby after her mastectomy, reading a card signed by 100 members of Congress. She was diagnosed in 1978 (when I was 9 years old, same age as my daughter now), at age 56 and was very publicly and bravely faced a mastectomy. She became a beacon of hope to lots of women, including Susan Komen, who died from the disease in 1980 at age 36. Komen did say “If Mrs. Ford can admit she has breast cancer and tell the world she intends to fight it, then so can I.”

Jimmy Carter: first prez born in a hospital (as opposed to at home, I presume), and the first to be sworn in using his nickname, “Jimmy” instead of his given name, James.

Ronald Reagan: was our oldest president, leaving office at age 77. He was also the first prez to have been divorced. During his tenure, our first female justice of the Supreme Court, Sandra Day O’Connor, was appointed by a landslide 91-8 vote.

George Bush: Bush is reportedly related to Benedict Arnold, Marilyn Monroe, Winston Churchill, and Presidents Franklin Pierce, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and Gerald Ford. Weird. Bush became the first vice president ever to serve as acting president when Reagan underwent surgery for three hours in 1985.  Good thing he’s the only VP to serve as acting pres, since it was such a short time frame, he might easily have become the second person to hold that honor. He’s also the second man in US Presidential history whose son became President.  In 1992, while at a formal dinner in Japan, Bush became ill and vomited on the prime minister of Japan, then fainted. Oh the horror.

Bill Clinton: childhood nickname was “Bubba.” Nuff said.

George W. Bush: press nickname was “Shrub.” Nuff said.

Barack Obama: first president to openly claim he doesn’t like ice cream as a result of working at an ice cream shop as a teen. Then how do you explain this: 

Or this: I could continue, but I think it’s impolite to embarrass the president. Most of them do that just fine without any help, actually.
Happy Presidents’ Day, everyone!

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3 Comments on “Happy Presidents’ Day”

  1. Christy says:

    Being the former social studies teacher I am, I knew lots of this..but certainly not all. FDR was the first on TV but the stations didn’t want to show the wheelchair so he was always behind his desk…or so legend has it! Knew about Lemonade Lucy, too. Bet those White House parties were a DRAGGGGGGGGG! And, are you imply that it is bad to self medicate with booze?? UH OH!!

  2. Ed says:

    I love how on the flags placemat a couple of extra countries have been added. It must have been Macy.
    Bonus presidential trivia: Garfield could write in Latin with one hand and Greek with the other simultaneously. Ford’s name change comes from his stepdad– his parents divorced when he was a baby.

  3. Barb Fernald says:

    Wow. You got all this information from a placemat?! May I borrow them for my next dinner party?


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