It is all there, written in dry but competent prose, thoroughly footnoted and indexed, as one expects in publications of the Oxford University Press, from George Washington's famous but apocryphal bout with a cherry tree to Ronald Reagan's quip on emerging from anesthesia: "All in all, I'd rather be in Philadelphia."
Between these chronological extremes, many other items will be familiar and welcome: Abraham Lincoln's well-known jokes, Calvin Coolidge's two-word witticisms; Harry Truman's threatening letter to a well-known Washington music critic; and Richard Nixon's "Checkers" speech. There is a fair quota of history in this volume, although the key issues encountered in America's first two centuries appear only fitfully. Instead, the focus is on the personalities behind the history -- at least in those cases where presidents have had personalities worth remembering. In some cases (perhaps a majority), the compiler must make do with what is available. If the material is sometimes thin, that is the price of deciding to cover all the presidents, not just the interesting ones.
Most of the good material is in predictable places; the presidents whom we consider the greatest -- Washington, Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt -- turn out to be anecdotally the most interesting. But (at least for the nonspecialist) there are a few surprises. Andrew Jackson has 19 pages, only one less than Washington -- a tribute to his colorful style, his violent rhetoric, his military career and particularly his association with the controversial Peggy Eaton, whose sex life was a subject of constant rumor in Washington of the 1830s.
Theodore Roosevelt also gets more than the fair share his talents as a chief executive would have earned, through sheer force and eccentricity of personality -- including a zest for war-making that seems quaintly dangerous in today's perspective. Calvin Coolidge was not really much of a president, either. When a woman asked him what his hobby was, he replied, "Holding office." The fact that this was substantially true makes it seem odd that he gets 50 percent more space than Thomas Jefferson. But the fact that he was able to speak so frankly, succinctly and unpredictably may justify his allotment.
On the average, those who have come in the back way, through the vice presidency, tend to be more interesting people -- not only Coolidge and the first Roosevelt, but Harry Truman and two men, a century apart, who were named Johnson. Both Johnsons emerge in this book with considerable stature.
Andrew Johnson was one of our least anecdotable presidents, saved from total anonymity only by the fact that history fell on him like a brick wall. Most of the material in his dossier seems to concern derogatory epithets thrown at him and lynch mobs looking for him. But in the brief profile that precedes the solitary, forlorn anecdote in his chapter, Boller sketches one of the most stalwart, honest, principled men ever to hold the presidency.
As for Lyndon, if richness of anecdote is a sign of greatness, he must have been a potentially great president -- also clobbered by history. He roars through the pages like a force of nature, picking up his dog by the ears, showing newsmen the scar of his gall bladder operation, skinny-dipping in the White House pool, and driving 90 miles per hour on a Texas back road, steering with one hand and drinking from a can of beer held in the other.
James Knox Polk managed to defeat Henry Clay, who was much better known and probably much more talented. As president, Boller reports, Polk "achieved just about all his goals," including a 50 percent increase in American territory gained through the Mexican War and the settlement of the Oregon border question. But "his cold, formal, suspicious, and humorless nature made it impossible for people to warm to him." The only anecdote included, after a brief character sketch, is about a disagreement he had with his wife over the use of paper money versus gold and silver. William McKinley "had an innate dignity and at the same time a warm sympathetic nature," according to Sen. Robert LaFollette, but these are not the stuff of great anecdotes. He is interesting chiefly because he was assassinated and lingered long enough to make some notable parting remarks. "Don't let them hurt him," he said as bystanders wrestled with his assassin. When his wife, watching him die, cried, "I want to go, too," he comforted her with four chilling, classic last words: "We are all going."
Martin Van Buren, coming after the excessively colorful Andrew Jackson, brought a needed blandness to presidential style -- which may be why he got not a single electoral vote for reelection. In Virginia, he polled only nine votes. When his party cried fraud, one Virginian answered, "Yes, fraud! And we're still looking for that son-of-a-bitch who voted nine times."
William Henry Harrison won that landslide election with one of history's first media blitzes -- a campaign totally devoid of content except for the vapid, euphonious slogan "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too" and such symbols as a jug of hard cider and a log cabin. But he lasted only a month, a victim of his own inaugural address, which he gave (at excessive length) on a cold day without hat or overcoat. Had he lasted longer, he might have yielded a few interesting anecdotes, but it is doubtful. The speech, Boller notes, "dwelt mostly on Roman history, using the word 'proconsul' many times, and had no more to do with American affairs than a page of the Koran."
Henry Clay would have provided good anecdotes, as would Adlai Stevenson, whose absence from this book may be the saddest thing about it -- at least for the present generation. Eisenhower is a poor substitute -- even anecdotally; even with military experience, which did not do for him what it did for Jackson. Notable in his section are some golf stories. Eisenhower is only indirectly responsible for the best entry in his chapter: a newspaperman's parody of the Gettysburg Address in Eisenhowerese, which begins: "I haven't checked these figures, but 87 years ago, I think it was, a number of individuals organized a government setup here in this country . . ."
There is more interest, perhaps, in Chester Alan Arthur (another promoted vice president), who originated as a machine hack but became a scrupulously honest president. "I have learned," he told a former crony, "that Chester A. Arthur is one man and the President of the United States is another."
Grover Cleveland may not have been exciting, but he was certainly competent, industrious and upright. In an editorial endorsing him, the New York World gave four reasons: "1. He is an honest man. 2. He is an honest man. 3. He is an honest man. 4. He is an honest man." When he lost his campaign for a second term and moved out of the White House, his wife told a servant, "I want to find everything just as it is now, when we come back again . . . We are coming back just four years from today." And so they did.
Boller does not say which term of that split administration gave rise to Cleveland's best one-line joke, and perhaps it never even happened, but real or unreal, it is memorable. "Wake up at once!" Mrs. Cleveland reportedly cried one night in the presidential bedroom. "There are burglars in the house!"
"No, my dear," he replied sleepily. "In the Senate maybe, but not in the House."