On day for presidents, let’s trivialize them
By John Kelly,
It’s Presidents’ Day, and I suddenly find myself obsessed with John Tyler, the nation’s 10th president, who served from 1841 to 1845.
Did you know that Tyler had more children than any other president? He had 15, helped by the fact that after his first wife, Letitia, died, he married Julia Gardiner, 24, who was 30 years his junior.
So, John Tyler: a player.
And also: a traitor.
Tyler was from Virginia, and when the Civil War broke out he was elected to the Confederate Congress, an act of treason against the country he had once served.
Those factoids, and a lot more, are in “The Smithsonian Book of Presidential Trivia.” I’m sure the Obamas keep a copy in the White House bathroom.
But really, trivia? Isn’t the presidency the most hallowed office in the land? Should we be trivializing it, literally?
“It’s just an access point that people can get into to learn more about American history, to spark their interest and larger curiosity,” said Harry Rubenstein, a curator of political history at the National Museum of American History. He’s among contributors to the book, which was written by Amy Pastan.
Harry said he’s useless at remembering trivia — the first, the fattest, the tallest — but many people love that sort of thing.
“Those little bits just take these mythic figures and make them a little less mythic, hopefully a little more human,” Harry said.
Florence Harding was accused of poisoning her husband! Teddy Roosevelt endorsed a brand of traveler’s checks! Gerald Ford was a fashion model!
Then there’s my fave — John Tyler, who with his first lady pops up in the book in the weirdest ways. Before she became fertile young wife No. 2, Julia Gardiner scandalized New York society by posing for an advertisement. Of course, they didn’t have cameras back then, and she wasn’t even shilling for something unmentionable like corsets or opium. She was depicted in an engraving on the arm of a young man while on her handbag was written an ad for a department store: “I’ll purchase at Bogert and Mecamly’s, No. 86 Ninth Avenue. Their Goods are Beautiful and Astonishingly Cheap.”
Eventually, Julia married President Tyler and ended up loving the White House so much that even after the couple left it she occasionally signed her letters, “Mrs. Ex-President Tyler.”
I think it kind of went to her head.
A White House quiz
Now it’s your turn to test your presidential knowledge, with some trivia taken from “The Smithsonian Book of Presidential Trivia.” How well do you know your presidential nicknames? (Answers below.)
1. William Howard Taft’s great girth earned him what nickname?
a. Wide Load
b. Fatt Taft, the 332-Pound Anagram
c. Big Lub
d. The Ohio Cannonball
2. What did some of Grover Cleveland’s detractors call him?
a. Clover Greveland
b. The Scum of Erie
c. The Great Constipator
d. The Buffalo Hangman
3. An early job inspired what Andrew Johnson nickname?
a. The Tennessee Tanner
b. The Tennessee Tailor
c. The Tennessee Trombonist
d. The Tennessee Taxidermist
4. Andrew Jackson’s tough discipline inspired what nickname?
a. The $2 Steak
b. Old Hardtack
c. Old Hickory
d. The Diamond Drillbit
5. What did some in the press call Rutherford B. Hayes?
a. His Fraudulency
b. His Wreckselency
c. His Terectomy
d. His Pompousness
6. With what nickname was the stiff and awkward Benjamin Harrison mocked?
a. The Ingrown Toenail
b. The Great Mumbler
c. The Human Iceberg
d. The $2 Haircut
7. Martin Van Buren’s slyness earned him what nickname?
a. The Little Magician
b. The Invisible Van
c. Mysterious Martin
d. Close-to-the-Vest Van Buren
Answers: 1. c (At 332 pounds, Taft was the fattest president, though he slimmed down to 250 pounds after leaving office,) 2. d (As sheriff of Erie County, N.Y., Cleveland oversaw the public executions of two convicted murderers.) 3. b (Johnson worked as a tailor’s apprentice before opening his own tailor shop.) 4. c (Jackson used the image of a hickory tree in his campaign materials.) 5. a (Detractors said Hayes stole the 1876 election after thousands of ballots were disputed.) 6. c (Harrison had no charisma or warmth, though he was honest, intelligent and possessed of high integrity.) 7. a (Van Buren was known for keeping his opinions to himself, an odd quality in a president.)
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.