Perfect Holiday Reading: “The Smithsonian Book of Presidential Trivia”

February 17, 2013

Happy Presidents’ Day, that concocted celebration marking the birth of Abraham Lincoln (Feb. 12) George Washington (Feb. 22) and the other 42 chief executives. Dreamed up by Congress–which always seems to be on recess— P-Day is part of the Uniform Monday Holiday Act giving workers several long weekends a year.

Perfect President's Day Reading: "The Smithsonian Book of Presidenital Trivia"
Perfect President’s Day Reading: “The Smithsonian Book of Presidenital Trivia”

Sure, you can shop the sales or clean out the garage this Feb. 18, if you’re lucky enough to be off.  But I suggest curling up with “The Smithsonian Book of Presidential Trivia” by Amy Pastan, which provides copious ammo to start or settle a barroom wager or dinner table debate. The breezy guide is way more fun than Google, Bing or Yahoo! and, as befits a tome from America’s storied museum complex—aka “the nation’s attic”—it is long on White House esoterica.

Such as?

The first lawyer to win the White House? John Adams, who would be succeeded by 24 other men possessed of legal training, heaven help us. Moreover, at just 5’4″, Adams remains our shortest president. (Got that, Mayor Bloomberg?)

The only commander-in-chief never to wed? James Buchanan, whose fiancée broke their engagement after a quarrel, and then broke his heart when she apparently took her life. Buchanan also penned the first presidential memoir, although “Mr. Buchanan’s Administration on the Eve of Rebellion” was hardly a Civil War-era blockbuster.

The first president with fulltime Secret Service protection? Teddy Roosevelt, whose other distinctions include being saved from an assassin’s bullet by an eyeglass case and 50-page stump speech in his pocket; inspiring thousands of adorable toy “Teddy Bears;” creating the first White House press room for reporters and being one of the Mount Rushmore Four.

The man with the biggest feet? Warren Harding (size 14), who was also the first president to ride in a car—a Packer Twin Six–not a carriage, after his inauguration.

The only former fashion model to run the country? Gerald Ford, who also was the only president previously drafted by two pro football teams, and the first to appear on “Saturday Night Live.”

The chief exec who sliced and diced copies of the New Testament to create his own prayer book? Thomas Jefferson, another Rushmore-ian, founder of the University of Virginia and one of eight presidents to own slaves while in the White House.

The year the United States had three different presidents? It was 1841, when Martin Van Buren left office, William Henry Harrison took his place but died a month later and was succeeded by Vice President John Tyler.

The man who likened the presidency to “being a jackass in a hailstorm?”  Lyndon Johnson, who finished the quote by saying, “There’s nothing to do but stand there and take it.”

Fortunately this book is not just about the men in the White House, but also their wives, children and pets. Although John Adams was still in the Continental Congress when Abigail Adams urged him to “remember the ladies” whilst declaring independence from England, she and successive first ladies came to exert their own post-election influence.

The only FLOTUS to attend an inaugural ball sans POTUS?

Eleanor Roosevelt (no surprise there). With the country mired in the Depression, FDR chose to skip the revels, causing scores of guests to cancel. Since it was a charity fundraiser, Eleanor decided to go it alone.

The first first lady to win an (honorary) Emmy? Jackie Kennedy, for her televised White House tour delivered in that unmistakable breathless voice.

The FLOTUS with the first taxpayer-funded social secretary?

Edith (Mrs. Teddy) Roosevelt, mother of six, who needed all the help she could get.

The first woman to give a weekly presidential radio address?

Laura Bush, subbing for hubby George W. Bush, who slammed the Taliban for oppressing women and children in Afghanistan.

The first presidential wife accused of poisoning her spouse?

Florence Harding, whose philandering husband (he of the giant feet) died suddenly in California. She forbade an autopsy, and became the subject of a book raising unproven hints that she knocked him off in a revenge killing.

The first POTUS accused of siring a love child? Grover Cleveland, who admitted a brief affair with Maria Halpin, and supported her son despite Cleveland’s doubt about paternity. He went on to win the election amid opposition taunts of “Ma, Ma, Where’s My Pa? Gone to the White House, Ha, Ha, Ha.”

Which FLOTI got in trouble for extravagance? Mary Todd Lincoln and Nancy Reagan. The former bought 300 pairs of gloves in four months, racked up huge White House redecorating bills and accepted lavish gifts from those seeking favor with Honest Abe. The latter acquired $200,000 worth of new White House china, and though it was bought with private funds, the purchase caused an uproar at time when Ronald Reagan was slashing programs for the poor.

What? A First Lady accused of bigamy? Rachel Jackson was certain she was divorced from her abusive first husband only to learn she hadn’t really been free to marry Andrew Jackson. That problem was sorted out and Jackson rivals failed to derail his campaign.

Finally, since no presidential trivia list would be complete without mention of an official pet, let us ask the name of the first White House rock-star animal?  Laddie Boy, Warren Harding’s Airedale terrier, who so delighted his master that the leader of the free world had 1,000 miniatures of the pooch cast in bronze.

I don’t know about you, but I’d rather celebrate Presidents’ Day by learning that John Tyler had 15 children by two wives, and Harry Truman installed the first White House bowling alley than pawing through piles of discounted frocks and socks at some shopping mall.

 

 Annie Groer is a former Washington Post and PoliticsDaily.com reporter and columnist whose work has also appeared in the New York Times, More, Town & Country and TheAtlantic.com. She is at work on a memoir. 

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Michelle Bernard | February 15, 2013