The Presidents really get interesting now, as a political leadership culture in the U.S. matures, the stakes of failure become greater, and technology, labor upheaval, expanding big business and greater influence on world affairs transforms the Presidency into truly the toughest job on earth.
Another one of my favorites, Cleveland was known for telling the truth ( he as called “Grover the Good”), but he participated in one of the most elaborate deceptions in Presidential history.
As explained in historian Matthew Algeo’s 2011 book, “The President Is a Sick Man,” President Cleveland noticed an odd bump on the roof of his mouth in the summer of 1893, shortly after he took office for the second time. (Cleveland is the only President with split terms, the hapless Republican Benjamin Harrison winning an electoral college victory that gave him four years as the bland filling in a Cleveland sandwich.) The bump was diagnosed as a life-threatening malignant tumor, and the remedy was removal. Cleveland believed that news of his diagnosis would send Wall Street and the country into a panic at a time when the economy was sliding into a depression anyway, and agreed to an ambitious and dangerous plan to have the surgery done in secret. The plan was for the President to announce he was taking a friend’s yacht on a four-day fishing trip from New York to his summer home in Cape Cod. Unknown to the press and the public was that the yacht had been transformed into a floating operating room, and a team of six surgeons were assembled and waiting.
The 90 minute procedure employed ether as the anesthesia, and the doctors removed the tumor, five teeth and a large part of the President’s upper left jawbone, all at sea. They also managed to extract the tumor through the President’s mouth while leaving no visible scar and without altering Cleveland’s walrus mustache. Talking on NPR in 2011, historian said,
“I talked to a couple of oral surgeons researching the book, and they still marvel at this operation: that they were able to do this on a moving boat; that they did it very quickly. A similar operation today would take several hours; they did it in 90 minutes.”
But the operation was a success. An artificial partial upper jaw made of rubber was installed to replace the missing bone, and Cleveland, who had the constitution of a moose, reappeared after four days looking hardy and most incredible of all, able to speak as clearly as ever. How did he heal so fast? Why wasn’t his speech effected? He endures doctors cutting out a large chuck of his mouth using 19th century surgical techniques and is back on the job in less than a week? No wonder nobody suspected the truth.
Then, two months later, Philadelphia Press reporter E.J. Edwards published a story about the surgery, thanks to one of the doctors anonymously breaching doctor-patient confidentiality. Cleveland, who in his first campaign for the White House had dealt with Republican accusations that he had fathered an illegitimate child by publicly admitting it, flatly denied Edwards’ story, and his aides launched a campaign to discredit the reporter. Grover the Good never lies, thought the public, so Edwards ended up where Brian Williams is now. His career and credibility were ruined.
Nobody outside of the participants knew about the operation and the President’s fake jaw until twenty-four years later, after all the other principals were dead except three witnesses. One of the surgeons decided to publish an article to prove that E.J. Edwards had been telling the truth after all.
This is a great ethics problem. Was it ethical for Cleveland to keep his health issues from the public? In this case, yes, I’d say so. Was it unethical for the doctor to break his ethical duty? Of course. Was Edwards ethical to report the story? Sure.
The tough question is: Was Cleveland ethical to deny the story and undermine the reporter’s credibility? I think it was a valid utilitarian move, and barely ethical: it was better for the nation to distrust one reporter than the President, especially when his secret was one he responsibly withheld, and his doctor unethically revealed.
The grandson of William Henry Harrison was afraid that he’d be electrocuted by the newly installed electric lights in the White House, so instead of turning them off himself, he had the servants do it. Ethically, this is like having your official taster risk getting poisoned in your place.
That’s all I need to know about Benjamin Harrison, the 23rd President.
There’s a statue on the Antietam Battlefield in Maryland, scene of the bloodiest single day of the Civil War. It is the only Civil War statue dedicated to a commissary sergeant, and the soldier honored is William McKinley, who risking his life repeatedly as he brought hot coffee and food to the Union Army throughout the battle, while so many bullets were being fired that the air itself was described as “gray.”
McKinley was an effective and well-loved leader. He was also one of the nicer guys to inhabit the White House. His wife, Ida, had been emotionally and mentally damaged by a series of personal tragedies, and was also epileptic. McKinley was extraordinarily loving and solicitous of her happiness and well-being, accepting, for example, each of the hundreds of pairs of slippers Ida compulsively knitted for him as if it was the first, and just what he needed. The President insisted that she sit with him at state dinners, and if she slipped into a seizure, as she frequently did, McKinley would calmly cover her head with a large napkin until her contortions passed, then lift it off as if nothing had happened.
When he was shot twice by an assassin, the President’s first thoughts were of Ida. “My wife, be careful, Cortelyou, how you tell her …oh, be careful,” he said to the aide who rushed to assist him.
The most unusual, dynamic, likable, eccentric and American of our Presidents, the irrepressible Teddy, has too much lore and jaw-dropping tales connected with him to do his legacy justice here. Has any President rebounded from a tragedy like the deaths of his mother and wife on the same night—Valentine’s Day—in the same house? Can any match TR’s crazy/courageous stunt of continuing to give a campaign speech after being shot in the chest by a would-be assassin? (The bullet was deflected by the thickly folded speech itself in Teddy’s breast pocket, giving the ultimate showman the chance to dramatically unfold the bloody thing in front of his amazed audience).
I can’t pick one, so I’ll use this opportunity to excerpt Roosevelt’s most famous speech, his so-called “Man in the Arena” address in 1910, really titled “Citizenship In A Republic” and delivered at the Sorbonne, in Paris, France. I’ve criticized the way this speech is often used by others, essentially to stifle legitimate criticism by saying, “What have you done that gives you standing to find fault with me?” That’s a lazy cop-out, especially for someone in public service, and is too close to other similar tactics, like arguing that only military veterans can make decisions involving war and peace.
The speech, however, is relevant to every one of the men listed in this series of posts, and it is the essence of Teddy Roosevelt.
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat. Shame on the man of cultivated taste who permits refinement to develop into fastidiousness that unfits him for doing the rough work of a workaday world. Among the free peoples who govern themselves there is but a small field of usefulness open for the men of cloistered life who shrink from contact with their fellows. Still less room is there for those who deride of slight what is done by those who actually bear the brunt of the day; nor yet for those others who always profess that they would like to take action, if only the conditions of life were not exactly what they actually are. The man who does nothing cuts the same sordid figure in the pages of history, whether he be a cynic, or fop, or voluptuary. There is little use for the being whose tepid soul knows nothing of great and generous emotion, of the high pride, the stern belief, the lofty enthusiasm, of the men who quell the storm and ride the thunder. Well for these men if they succeed; well also, though not so well, if they fail, given only that they have nobly ventured, and have put forth all their heart and strength. It is war-worn Hotspur, spent with hard fighting, he of the many errors and valiant end, over whose memory we love to linger, not over the memory of the young lord who “but for the vile guns would have been a valiant soldier.”
William Howard Taft
According to Indiana Senator James Watson, our fattest President “…simply did not and could not function in alert fashion… Often while I was talking to him after a meal, his head would fall over on his breast and he would go sound asleep for 10 or 15 minutes. He would waken and resume the conversation, only to repeat the performance in the course of half an hour or so.” President Taft was also seen snoozing at operas, funerals, and—especially—church services.”
Today, doctors believe that Taft suffered from Obstructive Sleep Apnea, or OSA, especially since the symptoms abated after he lost 70 pounds following the Presidency. From “Taft and Pickwick: Sleep Apnea in the White House” by John G. Sotos, MD:
Taft had three major risk factors for OSA :he was male, severely obese, and had a “short. . . generous” neck. His size-54 pajamas had a neck size of 19 inches. His body habitus exhibited central obesity…
Taft had two signs of OSA: excessive daytime somnolence and snoring. He may also have been polycythemic: his face was described as “ruddy” and “florid.” Systemic hypertension is a known complication of OSA, albeit common in the general population. Most importantly, Taft’s somnolence correlated with his weight. Taft’s remarkable weight loss after the presidency produced an equally remarkable improvement in his somnolence, blood pressure and, likely, survival.
In October 1910, President Taft was 53 years old, weighed 330 pounds, and snored. With these data, the model of Viner et al. predicts a 97% chance that Taft had sleep apnea…The nature of Taft’s sleeping difficulty in 1913 is unclear. Although OSA may masquerade as insomnia, heart failure is another possibility, given Taft’s “weak heart” and “panting for breath at every step.”
…Any combination of hypertension, obesity, and OSA could have caused heart failure. The reasons for his transiently decreased somnolence in June 1909 are unclear; there are reports of exercise without weight loss improving sleep apnea.
OHS has been known as the “Pickwickian syndrome” since 1956. Before (and after) the noso-logic separation of OSA from OHS in 1965,69,70 it was common to call any sleepy obese patient “Pickwickian.” Biographers have entertained whether Taft had Pickwickian syndrome, but more strongly hold that a psychological need to escape anxiety and strife caused his sleepiness. This seems unlikely because Taft’s somnolence was initially distressing, was involuntary, correlated better with his weight than his happiness, and was so profound that other psychopathology would likely have been manifest.
Thus, I conclude that OSA is the most probable explanation for Taft’s hypersomnolence. Except for periods associated with successful dieting (1906 to mid-1908, and perhaps briefly in 1909), he was likely afflicted from approximately 1900, when he started gaining weight in the Philippines, into 1913, when he started his post-presidency weight loss. He appears to have become symptomatic at approximately 300 lb. Based on Taft’s history of falling asleep during tasks requiring active attention, such as card playing and signing documents, he would be classified as having severe OSA syndrome.
To me the most amazing thing about Woodrow Wilson is how long the liberal historian establishment led by Kennedy hagiographer Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. managed to have him rated as one of the greatest American Presidents. (I believe his is the closest match for Barack Obama, though it’s still not all that close.) Wilson was smart, credentialed and a progressive, and had a lot of wonderful theories and aspirations, but good intentions pave the road to Hell, as they say, and Woodrow’s Presidency is a cautionary tale.
He promised to keep us out of the Great War, and then right after being elected on the promise, got us into it. His administration then prosecuted scores of radicals and anti-war dissenters, sentencing them to long jail terms for violations of the Espionage Act and the Sedition Act. Once the war was won, Wilson had grand plans for a new international organization to prevent future wars, and allowed himself to be out-maneuvered by vengeful European leaders to agree to a punitive, brutal treaty in Versailles that seeded a worse war, all so his baby would be birthed. Then he didn’t have the political skills to get the treaty and its League of Nations approved by Congress. This precipitated a crippling stroke, and he allowed his wife and doctor to secretly run the country rather than allow his Vice President to take over.
And yet none of this touches the real disgrace of Wilson’s tenure.
Woodrow Wilson was a white supremacist, racist to the bone. He believed that interracial marriage would “degrade the white nations.” He showed “Birth of a Nation” at the White House and pronounced it his favorite film, and his policies brought Jim Crow traditions back to Washington, D.C., after they had been effectively banned by Roosevelt and Taft. The Postal Service and the Treasury Department were beginning to integrate, so Wilson put an end to that, as he stocked his cabinet with Southern racists like himself. At parties, Wilson amused his guests by singing songs that mocked blacks and telling minstrel show jokes in dialect.
He was a progressive for whites only. As President of Princeton, Wilson worked to curb elitism by trying to get rid of the rich kid eating clubs, but when a poor black student at a Virginia Baptist college wrote to make his case for admission, Wilson answered “that it is altogether inadvisable for a colored man to enter Princeton.”
Wilson was a study in contrasts, to be sure. He was, it is believed, dyslexic, yet is the only President to earn a doctorate. Despite his scholarly appearance, he was reportedly quite a ladies man, and his letters to his two wives when he was wooing them border on pornographic. He was apparently pretty good at singing those minstrel songs, too.
Yup…one of the greats.
Warren G. Harding
Harding is the anti-Wilson. Historians have built the case that he was an amiable, incompetent, over-sexed boob, but his real crime was that he was a real conservative following three progressives. To most of today’s historians, progressive policies equal good, so this makes Harding a bad President, indeed one of the very worst. The record does not back up that assessment.
In his brief tenure (about 2 and a half years, from March 1921 to August 1923, when he died of a heart attack), Harding accomplished a lot. Unfortunately, again thanks to the skewed emphasis of Wilson-worshiping historians, his substantive achievements have been overshadowed by his sexual escapades (Harding affairs bad, JFK affairs…cute!), and the Teapot Dome Scandal, which occurred under his trusting nose and which was uncovered after his death. No doubt about it: that scandal, which was perpetrated by some of Harding’s most trusted associates (Grant deja vu), is a black mark against him. But as historians Ronald Radosh and Allis Radosh show in their upcoming book rehabilitating Harding, there was more to his Presidency than illicit sex in the closet and scandal.
Harding’s fiscal policies brought the country out of the economic depression that resulted from the nation’s unnecessary participation in World War I, as the national debt climbed from $1 billion in 1914 to $24 billion in 1920. The country was already experiencing rising unemployment, and then all the soldiers came home, looking for work. There was deflation, bankruptcies and business closures. Race riots broke out in cities where African-Americans lived in near whites communities.
Once elected, Harding took his campaign pledge to restore America to “normalcy” seriously. He cut government spending and reduced federal income tax rates. The government spent during the war as if “it counted the Treasury inexhaustible,” he told Congress, and added that if that pattern continued, it would result in “inevitable disaster.” Harding established the nation’s first Budget Bureau (the forerunner of today’s Office of Management and Budget) in the Treasury Department as a spending monitoring tool. His polices saw federal spending drop from $6.3 billion in 1920 to $5 billion in 1921 and $3.3 billion in 1922. He championed the Revenue Act of 1921, which eliminated a wartime, anti-business “excess-profits” tax, lowered the top marginal income tax rate from 73 to 58 percent, decreased surtaxes on incomes above $5,000, and increased exemptions for families.
As a result of the economic measures he implemented, unemployment fell from 15.6 percent to 9 percent. The construction, clothing, food, and automobile sectors boomed. From 1921 to 1923, U.S. manufacturing increased by 54 percent. It is fair to say that Harding was doing more than banging White House maids in the closet.
Harding also had guts. He bucked popular opinion and vetoed a World War I veterans bonus that had been promised by Congress, arguing that the national interest came first, and that the state of the economy required that the payment be delayed. No longer could deficit spending, he argued, be used to finance government programs for which the government did not have the funds. Imagine a President saying that today. What an idiot!
Harding also was determined to reverse Wilson’s racist policies, and to lead the nation to full acceptance of civil rights for all. He his support behind a federal anti-lynching law (FDR wouldn’t back such a measure later, for fear of alienating Southern Democrats). Democrats in the House and Senate sent the measure to defeat, as they did Harding’s proposal for the establishment of a biracial commission that would have investigated lynching and such abuses of electoral law as literacy tests and other schemes to disenfranchise black voters. Harding ordered his Cabinet to appoint black Republicans to key positions. He announced his intention to appoint “leading Negro citizens from the several states to more important official positions than were heretofore accorded to them, ” and appointed five African-Americans to jobs in the State Department; three in Treasury, one in the Justice Department, four in Interior, and one each in the Navy, Post Office, and Commerce Department. This was not enough to satisfy the black leaders who had endorsed him during the campaign, but it was a major improvement and a significant step forward out of Wilson’s racist vision for society.
In October of 1921,President Harding gave his “Birmingham speech,” in which he called for equal educational opportunity and an end to the disenfranchisement of black voters. Reporters wrote that white section of the audience listened in stony silence, while black Americans, standing in a roped-off segregated section, cheered.
Harding did not oppose segregation, but his support for civil rights still represented tremendous cultural progress.
Harding freed the political prisoners incarcerated by the Wilson, including Socialist Party leader Eugene V. Debs, a political prisoner by any definition. He even invited Debs to come to the White House before returning home, and to celebrate his freedom on Christmas Eve with the Hardings. He wrote, “We cannot punish men in America for the exercise of their freedom in political and religious belief.”
There’s an intriguing possibility that Harding had African-American ancestry. He was teased as a child because of such rumors, and some historians have written that there may have been truth to them. The Harding family was accepted by neither white or black communities in Blooming Grove, Ohio, and this made an impression on Warren, who as an adult sought membership in every fraternal and community organization he could find. The contacts he made in these groups ultimately formed the foundation of his political career.
So perhaps Warren G. Harding was the first black President…and the best one so far.
Calvin Coolidge is another figure whose reality was at odds with his popular image. For example, “Silent Cal” gave almost as many radio addresses as Franklin Roosevelt. He was also a cut-up: he liked to ring for White House servants and hide in the closet before they arrived.
Coolidge’s most important contribution to our political culture came before he was President, when as Governor of Massachusetts he was faced with the Boston Police Strike of 1919. 75% of the police force left work, and violent mobs of looters terrorized Boston for two nights. Coolidge called in the entire state militia, condemned the strikers as traitors, and declared,“There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, any time.”
Herbert Hoover was a great man in the wrong place, at the wrong time, as a Depression he didn’t make and couldn’t stop made him a national villain, which is an injustice and a tragedy: it would be hard to be less of a villain than Herbert Hoover:
- Herbert Hoover rose to public prominence during World War I as the Chairman of the Commission for Relief in Belgium, a non-profit, multi-national, non-governmental organization that provided food for more than 9,000,000 Belgian and French civilians trapped behind the front lines.
- In 1923, Herbert Hoover founded the American Child Health Association, an organization dedicated to raising public awareness of child health problems throughout the United States. Mr. Hoover served as the president of the ACHA until 1928.
- After World War II, Hoover initiated a school meals program in the American and British occupation zones of Germany, beginning on April 14, 1947. The program served 3,500,000 children aged six through 18. The program provided a total of 40,000 tons of American food, and was called the Hooverspeisung (Hoover meals).
- He chaired two Commissions on Organization of the Executive Branch of the Government, one under President Truman and the other under President Eisenhower. The Hoover Commissions studied the organization and methods of operation of the Executive branch of the Federal Government, and recommended changes to promote economy, efficiency, and improved service.
- Hoover served as Chairman of the Boys’ Clubs of America from 1936 until his death in 1964.
- Herbert Hoover was nominated five times for the Nobel Peace Prize – in 1921, 1933, 1941, 1946 and 1964.
Oh, and by the way, he was a President, too.