Presidents are people, too


James Madison was our smallest president at only 5 feet 4 inches tall —  2.5 inches taller than me. I’ll bet he hated having to use a stool to see over the podium. I can relate.

When I walk up to a hotel counter and my chin barely skims the surface, I always want to say, “Hi, I’m 3 years old.”

President Madison barely weighed 100 pounds, which brings to mind our wiry, mountain-climbing daughter. In college, she had guy friends who were soccer players. When her aunt asked if she ever went out with them, she grimaced, “I could never date a boy who weighs less than me.”

We’ve had presidents who’ve made us proud and some we wish we could forget, such as Chester Arthur, who was a fancy sort, ordering in daily flowers and owning 80 pairs of pants. His staff, I’m guessing behind his back, called him, “Elegant Arthur.”

He redecorated the White House with money he gained by selling 24 wagon loads of historical artifacts, including a pair of Abe Lincoln’s pants. That was odd, being such a pants man himself.

Harry Truman was the opposite and paid for all of his own travel and food expenses. He didn’t use secret service detail after retiring, and declined corporate positions at high salaries, saying, “You don’t want me, you want the office of the President and that belongs to the American people and it’s not for sale.” I beg to differ. It’s for sale today.

When John Adams was president and running for reelection, Thomas Jefferson, his vice president, was running against him. Eww boy, that wasn’t good. Adams called Jefferson “a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow” and, in an ad, warned of the consequences of a potential Jefferson presidency by saying, “Murder, robbery, rape, adultery and incest will be openly taught and practiced, the air will be rent with the cries of the distressed, the soil will be soaked with blood and the nation black with crimes.”

Well, gee John, tell us how you really feel. Jefferson won the election and went on to invent the swivel chair, probably for quick turns to see who was stabbing him in the back.

During his campaign, William Henry Harrison’s opposition cast him as someone who’d rather “sit in his log cabin drinking hard cider.” Soon-to-be president Harrison happily made spiked lemonade and handed it out in whiskey bottles shaped like log cabins. In your face, adversaries.

Interestingly enough, Ulysses S. Grant, the first four-star-general who saw his share of battles, couldn’t stand the sight of blood, but it’s not as weird as it seems. Our son the doctor, can’t do needles. If he’s forced to give blood and poked more than once, over he goes, passed out into the soup. Does he give blood often? No, no he does not.

Andrew Johnson had a rough childhood after his father died. His mother sent him and his brother out to a tailor as indentured servants. Two years later the boys ran away, but a few things were retained as useful in Andrew’s brain and while president, he made all of his own suits.

Benjamin Harrison was the first to have electricity in the White House, but fearfully refused to touch the light switches so often went to bed with all the lights on. Well heck, that’s why Gar never turns off a light, he’s afraid of electricity.

Martin Van Buren’s wife, Hannah, died 18 years before he became president. He never remarried, but he also never mentioned her name a single time in his nearly 800-page autobiography. Maybe like Gar, his thinking was clearly, “Once of that was enough” and “I escaped with most of my mind intact.” 

John Tyler, born in 1790, had 15 children, one being born when he was 60 years old and the last when he was 75. I’d go into how this happened, but suffice to say, the man could obviously recite the birds and bees narrative really well.

Woodrow Wilson’s wedding was catered by Chef Boyardee, the canned pasta guy, though at the time his name was Hector Boiardi, who was an Italian immigrant. I get it — open and serve is my favorite recipe.

Twenty-six-year-old Grover Cleveland legally avoided the civil war draft by paying a Polish immigrant (who thankfully survived) $150 to go to in his stead. That’s $4,300 in today’s wages — to potentially die for somebody he didn’t even know! Honest, I’m really, truly not xenophobic, but maybe, just maybe, that’s what started all those Polish jokes.

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