Ever since the embargoed Warren G. Harding letters to his mistress, Carrie Phillips, surfaced, my world has been plunged into chaos. Everything I thought I knew about the presidents — and how to rank them — was turned on its head. If you have read them, you will know what I mean. At least they are not as bad as James Joyce’s letters, but sometimes they get pretty close. They have ruined “The Jerry Springer Show” for me. And the term “gerrymandering.” If you don’t know why, I envy you.
But the most immediate impact of these letters was to demand a re-ranking of the presidents, by sex appeal.
Here is the outcome. Like all rankings, it is highly subjective and somewhat arbitrary at points. Unlike People’s Sexiest Man Alive or the Time’s Most Fascinating 93 Under 93, I admit this at the get-go. Some of these rankings just happened. Others were earned. (If it were up to me, I would not have to put Grover Cleveland on this list at all, let alone twice.)
1. John F. Kennedy
Patrician, tan and affiliated with both Jackie and Marilyn Monroe, Jack continues to reign supreme. Even that infamous picture of President Obama emerging from the ocean, James Bond 2.0-style, could not break his chokehold. Happy Birthday, Mr. President!
2. President Obama
Here is President Nixon emerging shirtless from the water.
— Christopher Ingraham (@_cingraham) July 23, 2014
Here is President Obama, doing the same.
— Shirtless Obama (@shirtlessobama) March 15, 2014
3. Franklin Pierce
“We Polked you in ’44. We shall Pierce you in ’52.”
This was his actual slogan. ‘Nuff said.
He had nice hair, Pierce-ing eyes and could hang with fellow Bowdoin stud Nathaniel Hawthorne.
My colleague Gene Weingarten backs me up on this.
4. Thomas Jefferson
Who else could write the Declaration of Independence — while pulling off red hair? Not John Adams, that’s for sure. Well-read, well-traveled, with an extensive wine cellar, this designer of Monticello is pretty much the late 18th and early 19th-century man to beat. (Although if Hamilton had made it on this list, it might be a real duel.) With the, er, serious moral complications (cough, Sally Hemings, uncough) that being the 18th century’s dream man entails.
5. James Knox Polk
If “Polk, Pierce, Marry” was a game that teenagers played at slumber parties back in the Era of Just Okay Feelings (1844ish), Polk would have won every time. Who didn’t want to be Polked in ’44? (Not Facebook Polked, which everyone agreed was creepy.)
6. George Washington
Possibly this is just patriotism talking. But I think patriotism is right! Ignore, for a moment, the infamous false teeth. Concentrate on the tall young surveyor. Then look at a quarter and tell me that’s not a commanding profile!
7. James Monroe
Hear me out on this one. He’s one of our taller presidents, and when he was elected to office, he ushered in an “era of good feelings.” (“Hey, baby, I’d like to usher YOU in an era of good feelings.”) His pictures make me less confident in this pick, though, in some of which he frankly resembles a pudgy turnip, at least about the face.
8. Teddy Roosevelt
Speak softly and carry a big stick? And coin the Bull Moose Party? I say, as Nats fans have long said, “Let Teddy win!” No coincidence that both a stuffed bear and an item of lingerie bear this man’s name. At least, I assume it’s no coincidence.
9. Abraham Lincoln
I know he said that if he had two faces, he would not be wearing this one, but I think he sold himself short. Faces aren’t everything. A rail-splitter? A lawyer? And the author of the Gettysburg Address? Never mind the chin-beard! Or the hat! Or the jokes! Or the — hey, look, I think he’s attractive, okay?
10. Ronald Reagan
A little prematurely orange, but what a sense of humor! And he won’t hold your comparative youth and inexperience against you. (It seemed as though, as the only bona fide former Hollywood actor on this list, he needed to at least crack the top 10. He certainly outshone his costars in “Bedtime for Bonzo.”)
11. Dwight D. Eisenhower
I like Ike. What’s not to like? He’s the best thing to come down the pike! Great if you’re into Mr. Clean, but would prefer if he were a military man.
12. Bill Clinton
If you’re not into Mr. Clean, however … And he plays the sax!
13. Ulysses S. Grant
Nasty cigar habit, not the best president qua president, but a superb general with a great memoir! Also, once he was arrested for speeding! That’s sexy, right? (In retrospect, I think this is a little too high. This was a vote for General Grant, not President Grant, who was inclined toward the Taft-y in avoirdupois.)
14. Franklin Roosevelt
For anyone who likes the Constantly Exhausted War President Vibe and didn’t find what he or she was looking for in Abraham Lincoln, seek no further. Franklin would like to chat by your fireside. And his stamina is proverbial — they had to make a constitutional amendment afterward to make sure no one else would last so long in office.
15. George W. Bush
Would have been more attractive if he didn’t always seem to be squinting at some fine print just too far away for comfort.
16. Harry S. Truman
Wholesome boy-next-door type.
17. James Madison
He’s not short! He’s fun-sized! And he’ll take great notes on your sessions.
18. Herbert Hoover
Not bad if you like men with smooth onion-shaped heads.
19. Rutherford B. Hayes
This seems awfully high. I’m not sure what happened here. I guess he has a sweet baffled expression? Most of his face is hidden by a large beard, so one can assume that he is secretly very attractive underneath.
20. Jimmy Carter
He puts the “stag” in “stagflation.” Carter voted himself higher on this list, but we overruled him. He wants you to know that he also writes poetry.
21. John Adams
John, I love you, and all that you did (except for the Alien & Sedition Acts!), and your letters to Abigail were very sweet. From a certain angle, I’m sure you really DID look like Paul Giamatti. And that’s not saying too much. But — well — you know. We all remember what happened when HBO tried to translate this into Mature Content. This is about as high on the list as you can get on sheer force of personality.
21. Chester A. Arthur
THOSE MUTTONCHOPS, THOUGH!
22. Gerald R. Ford
Seems about right.
23. George H.W. Bush
I am, frankly, ambivalent about the relative positions of Bush, Johnson and Ford. I gave them all the benefit of the doubt because color photographs of them exist.
24. Lyndon Baines Johnson
Having Bryan Cranston play you onstage can help a little, but it still reminds us what you looked like.
25. Grover Cleveland
The man so nice electively, they picked him twice nonconsecutively!
26. William Howard Taft
William Howard Taft was either more or less sexy than Grover Cleveland, depending on whom you ask. This list accommodates both opinions!
Like hot tubs? This plush charmer had a bathtub large enough to fit four men.
27. Grover Cleveland
Grover Cleveland is on this list twice.
28. Calvin Coolidge
If you like the strong, silent type, Coolidge offers you one out of those two things! But don’t try to pin this man down. Consider the hen story, where allegedly Calvin and his wife were separately strolling past a chicken coop and each noticed an ardently occupied rooster. The farmer informed Mrs. Coolidge that the rooster performed this service numerous times each day. “Tell that to Mr. Coolidge,” Mrs. Coolidge said. “With the same hen?” Coolidge asked, when he came by. “No, different hens,” said the farmer. “Tell that to Mrs. Coolidge,” Calvin said.
Fun fact: One year, for Halloween, I dressed up as Sexy Calvin Coolidge. I do not recommend this costume. Coolidge is not instantly recognizable to most partygoers, and when you spend the whole evening yelling that you are “CALVIN COOLIDGE! YOU KNOW, SILENT CAL!” the illusion of being Silent Cal is ruined.
29. Martin van Buren
Not the world’s most attractive man, but we’re getting into the home stretch of the list, and he had nice eyes.
30. William McKinley
William McKinley was a less sexy Calvin Coolidge, and so was Calvin Coolidge.
31. Richard Nixon
32. John Tyler
Good thing he was the “man without a party,” because he would have ruined your party pictures.
33. Zachary Taylor
Zachary Taylor’s permanent resting face was Older Man Upset To Have Been Awakened By This Loud Noise. Even if he was a military man, this left him at a disadvantage.
34. John Quincy Adams
All of the raw sensuality of John Adams, none of his irascible charm. Also, he looked like a parsnip. And he got famously upset with his wife for wearing rouge.
35. Woodrow Wilson
I refuse to join any League of Nations that would have this bespectacled Wheat Thin as a member. Mr. Peanut, but without the charisma.
36. Andrew Johnson
A former tanner (“Tanner than what?” Oh, hush), he had plenty of muscle to spare, but — those beady eyes. And, well, Reconstruction. When people talk about reconstructions that didn’t go well, Andrew Johnson wished they were just talking about failed plastic surgeries.
38. James Buchanan
Between the kewpie-doll hair and presiding over the gross, compromised run-up to the Civil War, Buchanan was hardly the stuff that dreams are made of. Then again, Sen. William Rufus King of Alabama seemed to approve.
39. Andrew Jackson
Nobody is into Andrew Jackson these days, even if he was tall. Things would go all right until you got to talking about his legislative achievements.
40. James A. Garfield
As a president with an eponymous animal comic strip, I should give him the Millard/Mallard Fillmore treatment and put him almost dead last. But his one party trick was writing in Latin with one hand and Greek with another, and this makes me believe that, beneath that beard, there were hidden depths. Hidden, sexier depths. Or maybe another, smaller beard. (Ah, to have lived in an era when ‘writing in Latin with one hand and Greek with another’ was considered a fun party trick! (No, I take that back. Once you’ve seen that a single time, you’re set, I would imagine, and then you’re stuck in the past without air conditioning or penicillin.)
41. William Henry Harrison
You know what they say about men with long inaugural speeches: They have short presidencies.
42. Benjamin Harrison
A Hoosier, yes, but one with what was described as a “wilted petunia” of a handshake. The best thing ever said or written about Benjamin Harrison is the following double dactyl: “Higgledy Piggledy/Benjamin Harrison/Twenty-third president was, and as such/Served between Clevelands and/Save for this trivial/Idiosyncrasy, didn’t do much.” Like the man who inspired it, it is not terribly sexy.
43. Millard Fillmore
This unlucky 13th president inspired the cartoon “Mallard Fillmore.” Ponder that for a second.
44. Warren G. Harding
One word: “Jerry.” I know, I know. I am well aware that, back in the day, one of the hazards of giving women the vote was considered to be the fact that everyone would rush out swooning to vote for Warren Harding because he just looked so darn presidential. It did not help the case of people who said, “Please, the electorate knows better than that!” that Harding in fact did win the election. But we can rectify this now.