Wednesday, August 29, 2012

A presidential "mass knife fight"?!?!?

I'm doing this project because of stuff like this:

One of my most-visited sites on the web is, and one of my favourite subreddits is HistoricalWhatIf, an online community that debates historical hypotheticals. Earlier today someone asked the question, In a mass knife fight to the death between every American President, who would win and why?
This gets to the main point of my project: nobody asks these crazy questions about any other job, do they?

By the way, Andrew Jackson would totally win. Though I wouldn't rule out John Quincy Adams after everything I've been reading about him lately.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

And now, a special video tribute

Now that we're in political convention season (weather permitting, anyway), I've been looking into how the political parties have paid tribute to departed presidents. A couple spring to mind right off the bat - most recently, of course, was the video tribute to President Reagan at the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York:

Reagan, of course, died not long before the convention, so the big tribute was no surprise. That said, the Gipper got a big tribute again in the 2008 RNC, while Gerald Ford, who had died more recently, was part of a video tribute to "Deceased Republican Leaders and President Gerald Ford." You could look at that and think Mr. Ford was getting the same treatment Ginger and Mary Anne got in the theme to "Gilligan's Island," but I think it's just the recognition that the Gipper is still the Gipper in American politics even if he's been dead for nearly a decade. The Tupac of dead presidents, essentially.

The other convention tribute that jumped to mind was in 1964, when Democrats made the late President Kennedy a centerpiece of their convention. And the centerpiece of that centerpiece was the speech by JFK's brother/Attorney General, Robert, which he was only able to give after some 22 minutes of sustained applause:

RFK, says one of the speakers in this clip, "was the representation of what they had lost." Between this and President Lyndon Johnson's calls to "let us continue" President Kennedy's work, the Democratic ticket did anything but lose in '64.

I'm still looking for detailed schedules of past conventions - it would be interesting to find out which late and/or former presidents were feted at their party's conventions and which weren't. One suspects President Lincoln was a big presence at the 1868 Republican convention, but one also suspects William McKinley didn't accept his nomination in 1896 under the shadow the departed Rutherford B. Hayes. Maybe they had a video tribute in honor of departed leaders and General Hayes? You never know. 

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Of Quincy Adamses and nude beaches (?)

Google has interesting results sometimes.

 The explanation for the last result, of course, is that our sixth president was one of several presidential "skinny-dippers;" as the story is told today, once JQA was taking his morning dip in the Potomac when a reporter decided to sit on the president's clothes until he agreed to an interview. He complied, and the reporter, Anne Royall, became the first female journalist to interview the president. I have been unable to find a copy of the interview, so it is unknown if Ms. Royall asked about shrinkage. Which is something, frankly, I'm glad not to know about.

The other search results link to reviews of the biography I'm reading, Harlow Gilles Unger's John Quincy Adams. I've skipped around a bit in the book, but the reviews confirm what I suspected in my post last week - that Adams didn't exactly rock our world as president, but otherwise led a spectacularly distinguished and successful career. The problem, of course, is that in America, once you're president you're almost entirely remembered for - and defined by - your presidency. And so John Quincy Adams' stellar pre-presidential career as a diplomat and his powerful post-presidential career in Congress aren't in the one-sentence definition of his impact on history: it's his somewhat mediocre, ineffective presidency. 

I was trying to think of a metaphor that fits here. At first I thought maybe Karl Malone, the NBA superstar who came close time after time to a world championship but never won one, but that's not really accurate - Henry Clay, the would-be-but-never-was president, was the Karl Malone of American politics. No, Adams is more like the political equivalent of Leon Spinks, who was a Olympic gold medalist and a talented fighter but, as world champion, accomplished little beyond losing the championship. 

Fairly or unfairly, it's what you do - or don't do - at the top that people remember.

But on the plus side, Spinks doesn't have to worry about "nude beaches" showing up in his Google search results. 

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Good thing I'm not a professional trip planner.

Though I'm making good progress on my DC trip plans. Here's a Google map with some of the spots I'm visiting:

View Presidents Who Lie (In State): The DC Trip in a larger map

Some of these require reservations, which I'm still lining up, but I'm hoping to have everything in place by the end of the week.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Presidential smoothies

This, I learned from the grocery store bagger tonight, is a thing:

There are cities and states named for presidents; there are schools, bridges, buildings and streets named for presidents. Now we have crossed the smoothie barrier. Perhaps we will have more presidential smoothies. If so, I feel bad for William McKinley as someone will undoubtedly make his smoothie taste like chocolate eclair.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Beginning at the end

I've developed an odd habit as I've gotten into this project: every time I pick up a book about a president now, the first place I look is at the end of the book, for the death and burial information. This week I got hold of a galley of an upcoming biography of Old Man Eloquent, John Quincy Adams, and sure enough, I flipped past the whole of one of the more interesting lives in American history - son of the second president, seasoned diplomat, architect of the Monroe Doctrine, president, distinguished congressman and fiery antislavery advocate - to read about the stroke he suffered on the floor of the House and how he was buried in the family crypt. (Should I have put a spoiler alert in front of this? Nah.)

I did end up going back through more of the book - I still have a long way to go, but I stayed up late reading about his final years fighting the congressional "gag rule" that blocked any bills or petitions that would interfere with slavery. The book presents him as a kind of badass grandpa, defying rules, furious southern congressmen, even death threats to push back on the gag rule, with a rationale that was something like this:

a) I'm old, so what have I got to lose;
b) I'm John Freaking Quincy Adams.

Honestly, looking at that picture above, you can see a guy who's not easily going to be denied. Sure enough, he got the gag rule removed.

The author argues that the gag rule episode and Adams' vocal antislavery stance made him into a even bigger national figure than he'd been as president decades before, and that when he died (unsurprisingly, the last thing he said on the House floor before his stroke was "NO!") even his biggest foes in Congress had to tip their hats to his determination and his long record of public service.

I bring this up partly because I'm slightly afraid of him and want to make sure he doesn't find a way to hurt me from beyond the grave for not lauding him enough, but also because a lot of the stories I'm reading about the presidents come down to redemption or reconciliation. John Quincy Adams the man is and was widely respected, but John Quincy Adams the president has long been thought of as not so great. The book I'm reading suggests Adams' second act (or maybe third or fourth?) was where he restored his reputation as a Great American.

This comes up again and again with presidents - not always, but often enough that it's a theme. William Howard Taft ran the least successful reelection campaign in history, but rebuilt his good name as Chief Justice. Herbert Hoover left the White House as the somewhat despised symbol of the Great Depression, but spent his long post-presidential career in (what else) public service and restoring his reputation. More recently, Jimmy Carter went from "Malaise Forever" to Nobel laureate, and Richard Nixon, who seemed destined to have "resigned in disgrace" chiseled into his tombstone, was eulogized by President Bill Clinton, whose wife had worked as a lawyer for a committee investigating Watergate.  

Of course, not every president is so lucky. James Buchanan wrote "history will vindicate my memory." Which is true, if by "memory" you mean his ability to recall information. Vindicating the memory of his presidency... yeahno.

Friday, August 10, 2012

The thrilling Kickstarter conclusion


We did it! The Kickstarter deadline has come and gone, and we made the goal and then some. In short: we're going to Washington! 

I'll have trip details very soon. Thanks so very much to all 34 of you generous backers, everyone who shared or liked the project on Facebook and so forth, and to all well-wishers.

Stay tuned - this is happening! 

Sing a song of Garfield

I'm watching the clock run down on my first Kickstarter project. It's not exactly a thrilling finale, given that we made the goal weeks ago, so I'm passing the time finding songs about the late, lamented President Garfield.

Most famous of these, of course, is the tune Johnny Cash used to sing about Mister Garfield, who got shot down, got shot down.

There's a song about the man who shot Garfield, Charles Guiteau - though it's essentially a folk song about someone else who shot someone else, with a little old-school find-and-replace action to fit the facts of the case.

 This tune is weaved into the "Ballad of Guiteau" in musical Assassins, but I won't subject you to it since a) this project is about the presidents, not assassins and b) I'm pretty sure I'm allergic to show tunes. Oh, fine, here it is.

Alternative rockers may remember Juliana Hatfield's song "President Garfield" - which makes reference to Washington, DC, but not to the prez himself. I'll see if I can get to the bottom of this mystery. 

This next song has no such mystery - it's pretty clear what it's about.

A transcription of the lyrics: 

James, James, James Garfield. James A Garfield (repeat 4x)
oh yeah, that's what I'm talking 'bout
go on, you crazy president, you
are you ready? okay, here we go...
James, James, James Garfield. James A Garfield (repeat 4x)

Deep, man.

I'm expecting to find a few more in the book In Memoriam: Gems of poetry and song on James A. Garfield; I'll take some notes and let you know what I find.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

The final curtains

Cholera morbus: two of the creepiest words I've read since starting this project. Cholera, as any child of the 80's remembers, is one of the icky diseases that kills off members of your party in the game Oregon Trail, while morbus (Latin for "disease") sounds too much like mor-bid for comfort. The term, out of fashion today, was used in olden days to describe a patient's general "getting really sick in a way that may or may not actually be cholera and may also be fatal" - as it was for at least two presidents.

I say "at least" because cause of death isn't always obvious today, much less in times when we didn't know everything we know about medicine and health. Hence diagnoses like "cholera morbus" - we know he died of some kind of illness, though we'll be damned if we know which one. Zachary Taylor and James K. Polk are said to have died of cholera morbus; Taylor had had flare-ups of some kind of illness throughout his short presidency, while Polk is said to have worked himself to death. In these and many other cases, the presidential cause of death is more in the realm of "probably" than "definitely. "

The most definite, of course, was John F. Kennedy, one of the few presidents to receive an autopsy, and near as we can tell the only one whose demise was captured on film. Assassination is that way - though we should point out that medical minds today are convinced two presidents who were felled by an assassins bullet would have survived the attacks had the medical minds of their day not introduced infections into the wounds. From what I've read, James Garfield unquestionably would have lived, McKinley had a pretty good shot chance as well, and a few folks even suggest Abraham Lincoln could have physically survived, though he would have been mentally incapacitated.

update: in rereading the post I realized that saying William McKinley had a good "shot" at surviving is a pretty awful word choice given the situation. Ouch. Yeah. 

Pneumonia has been a common cause of death for presidents, taking George Washington, Ronald Reagan and both Harrisons, though I've read that this, back in the day, was another one of those "ah, he's sick, just call it something" terms, like cholera morbus. If so, the only definite case of pneumonia was Reagan, and I've been told that's a common complication for people with Alzheimer's disease.

Another euphemism: debility. John Adams, Jefferson, Madison and Monroe all succumbed to this phrase essentially meaning "being really old." Three of the four died on the Fourth of July, and the fourth (Madison) died a few weeks shy of the Fourth, so maybe it should be called "Independence Day-related debility." James Buchanan died of respiratory failure, while Martin Van Buren is said to have died of "asthma," though the fascinating site Doctor Zebra suggests this is an "unsatisfying" explanation and that sleep apnea is one of a number of alternatives. 

A few presidents didn't even get euphemisms; it's just not known what did them in. Grover Cleveland has been said to have died of about 700 different things; it sounds as if he was unwell and a lot of systems started going haywire. Theodore Roosevelt officially fell to a "coronary embolism" but that's not certain. And neither Gerald Ford's family nor his doctors have, to my knowledge, ever released a cause of death, though "being 93" does leap to mind. Or I guess it's called "debility."

A few cases are more cut and dried, such as the presidents who died after strokes - in fact, each of the three presidents who returned to legislative activity after their presidencies died of strokes. This included Andrew Johnson, who had only recently returned to the US Senate; John Tyler, a member of the Confederate House of Representatives, and, most dramatically, John Quincy Adams, who collapsed on the floor of the House of Representatives after shouting "NO!!!!" to a bill on the Mexican War.

Heart disease is another common killer of presidents - though it took more than six heart attacks to take Eisenhower and at least three for LBJ. The deaths of Andrew Jackson and Theodore Roosevelt are both blamed on coronary events, though in each case they had been getting progressively sicker over time and finally just ran out of steam. Jackson, in particular, was in bad shape, short of breath, in constant pain and puffed up from water retention - "I am a blubber of water," he said, which luckily did not end up on his tombstone.

Lastly, only one president - U.S. Grant - has died of cancer. Am I the only one to find this unusual? I certainly don't know medical statistics, but I'd expect it to be higher. Then again, presidents are a small group and not necessarily an "average" group at that.

The full list is below - it's based largely on two sites: Dead Presidents: Causes of Death and Doctor Zebra. I put asterisks next to the cases where the cause of death is less than certain.

debility - John Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe
pneumonia - Washington, William Henry Harrison, Benjamin Harrison, Reagan
stroke - John Quincy Adams, Tyler*, Fillmore, Andrew Johnson, Wilson, Nixon
heart disease - Jackson*, Hayes, Truman, Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson
“asthma” - Van Buren
cholera morbus - Polk, Taylor
stomach inflammation from alcohol use - Pierce
respiratory failure - Buchanan
assassination or related - Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley, Kennedy
cancer - Grant
cerebral hemorrhage - Arthur, Franklin Roosevelt
not clear - Cleveland, Ford
coronary embolism - Theodore Roosevelt*
heart attack - Taft, Harding*, Coolidge
gastrointestinal hemorrhage - Hoover

Pierce statue

Got a few good photos of the Franklin Pierce statue outside the State House in Concord. I'm working on a longer piece about this statue, which has kind of an interesting story around it. The New Hampshire legislature held off on a statue to honor the state's only president for about a half century. Ouch.
Pierce's statue

Pierce's statue

Pierce's statue