Mike Stoll: More presidential facts

Published 7:01 am Monday, February 18, 2019

Last year before Presidents’ Day, I shared a few facts about this nation’s leaders. (You can read them here: The hidden facts behind our presidents)

Here are a few more.

A token from the bard

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Before they were political enemies, John Adams (1797-1801) and Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809) once traveled to Stratford-upon-Avon in England to visit the home of William Shakespeare. While there, they chipped off a piece of one of Shakespeare’s chairs to keep as a souvenir.

The first American president

Born in 1782, Martin Van Buren (1837-41) was the first president born after the adoption of the Declaration of Independence. Dutch was the language spoken at his house as a child and elements of his accent could be heard when he was excited.

‘Log cabin and hard cider’

During the 1840 presidential campaign, a pro-Democratic newspaper said of Whig candidate William Henry Harrison (1841), “Give him a barrel of hard cider, and … a pension of two thousand (dollars) a year … and … he will sit the remainder of his days in his log cabin.” While the comment was meant to disparage Harrison, Whigs jumped on the remark as proof that he was “the log cabin and hard cider candidate” that related to the common man. As the son of an affluent Virginia politician, Harrison grew up on Berkeley Plantation, a three-story brick mansion, not a log cabin.

His Prolificness

John Tyler (1841-45) fathered 15 children, more than any other president. Eight were with his first wife, Letitia Christian Tyler, and seven were with his second wife, Julia Gardiner Tyler. His eldest child, Mary Tyler, was five years older than her stepmother, Julia. As of 2019, Tyler had two living grandsons, Lyon Gardiner Tyler Jr. and Harrison Ruffin Tyler.

Minister to the North Pole

In 1845, when James K. Polk (1845-49) selected James Buchanan (1857-61) as his secretary of state, the decision incensed Polk’s mentor, Andrew Jackson (1829-37). When Polk reminded Jackson that, during his presidency, he had appointed Buchanan as his minister to Russia, Jackson is claimed to have said, “Yes I did. It was as far as I could send him out of my sight and where he could do the least harm! I would have sent him to the North Pole if we had kept a minister there.”

No vote for Taylor

Zachary Taylor (1849-1850) never cast a ballot in a presidential election, even his own in 1848. His reasoning: As a career soldier, he never wanted to cast a ballot against a potential commander-in-chief.

Fashionable Arthur

Chester A. Arthur (1881-85) was a man of expensive tastes. He always dressed in the most up-to-date fashion and enjoyed being seen with the elites of Washington. When he ascended to the presidency after the death of James Garfield (1881), he refused to occupy the White House until it was redecorated to suit his style. In all, 24 wagon loads of damaged and unfashionable pieces of furniture, as well as 30 barrels of china, from the White House were sent to auction. Arthur hired Associated Artists, including Louis Tiffany, to makeover the White House.

Fear of electricity

Benjamin Harrison (1889-1893) was the first president to have electric lighting in the White House. He and his wife, Caroline Harrison, were so afraid of electricity that they left the job of turning the light switches on and off to the servants.

Never wanted to be president

William Howard Taft (1909-13) had no interest in being president. While serving as secretary of war to Theodore Roosevelt (1901-08), Taft hoped he could secure an appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court. He ran for president, and won, in 1908 at the behest of Roosevelt. However, Roosevelt was so displeased with Taft’s performance as president that he ran against him in 1912 as a third party candidate, swaying the vote to Democrat Woodrow Wilson (1913-21). In 1921, Taft got his wish when Warren G. Harding (1921-23) appointed him as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, a position he held until his death in 1930. He is the only president to ever serve on the high court.

Wilson’s subtle humor

During the 1912 Democratic National Convention, Woodrow Wilson (1913-21) overtook U.S. House Speaker Champ Clark on the 13th ballot. A reporter found Wilson speaking with his family and informed him of the news. When Wilson gave an emotionless response, the reporter pressed him to give a more forward “excited” statement. “You might put in the paper,” Wilson said, “that Governor Wilson received the news that Champ Clark had dropped to second place in a riot of silence.”

Blame Hoover

When the Stock Market crashed in 1929, leading to the Great Depression, Herbert Hoover (1929-33) was largely blamed. When Hoover again ran in 1932, a common sign held up by hitchhikers read, “Give me a ride or I’ll vote for Hoover.”

Fear of fire

Because he was handicapped from polio, Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933-45) was afraid of fire. The man who introduced the fireside chat radio addresses never liked being left alone in a room with a burning fire in the fireplace.

Truman cheats the Army

Harry S Truman (1945-53) had terrible eyesight, causing his application to the United States Military Academy in West Point, New York, to be rejected. Without glasses, his vision was 20/50 in his right eye and 20/400 in his left eye. He enlisted in the Missouri National Guard in 1905, passing his vision test only because he memorized the eye chart.

Kennedy’s burden

During the 1960 campaign, John F. Kennedy (1961-63) asked his supporters, “Do you realize the responsibility I carry? I am the only person between (Richard) Nixon and the White House.”

Him and Her

Lyndon Johnson (1963-69) had two Beagles named Him and Her. In 1964, an A.P. photographer snapped a photo of Johnson lifting Him by his ears, sparking outrage from animal rights activists nationwide. When asked why he did that, Johnson replied, “To make them bark.”

Not too old

On Oct. 21, 1984, during his second presidential debate with opponent Walter Mondale, Ronald Reagan (1981-1989) was asked by Baltimore Sun reporter Henry Trewhitt if he believed his age would affect his ability to govern in dire circumstances (Reagan was 73). Reagan responded, “Not at all, Mr. Trewhitt, and I want you to know that also I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”