As Americans, we feel we are an informed group of people, don’t we? We have our BlackBerry’s and IPhones. We have email and social media, hundreds of cable channels to surf and countless websites that are just a click away. But there is so much information out there that we are bound to miss a few tidbits now and again.
Let me test my theory: How many of you know which President of the United States, while swimming naked in the Potomac, had his clothes stolen by a reporter? The reporter insisted that he give her an interview before his clothes would be returned. Any guesses? The answer is John Quincy Adams, not to be confused with John Adams, his father and the second president of the United States.
Can you name the president who made the idiom “OK” famous? That was Martin Van Buren and “OK” was an abbreviation for “Old Kinderhook, NY,” where he had been born. The town’s name was simply Kinderhook, but campaign supporters took to calling it Old Kinderhook and hence the shortened name, “OK”.
Let’s continue to test your presidential knowledge. Who came up with the term, “Founding Fathers”, anyone? That would be Warren Harding who was president from 1921-1923. He first used the term in a speech and it stuck.
Okay, here’s an easy one. There are four presidents on Mt. Rushmore. Name them. Lincoln you say? Right! Jefferson? Yes! Washington? Of course! Roosevelt? Well, which Roosevelt? That’s right, Teddy Roosevelt! Now, tell me which one of these fellows served two terms and then after sitting out a term, was so upset by his successor’s policies that he decided to run again and would have served a third term had he won. Any guesses at all? Come now, this should be easy.
Let’s figure it out together. Washington served two terms and retired, and was rumored to have said to John Adams, “Now I am fairly out and you are fairly in…” Jefferson served two terms and retired from politics altogether after 1809. Lincoln, well, I think we know what happened to Lincoln. He obviously was not around to try for a third term. But Teddy Roosevelt was still around! And while the electoral vote was decidedly against him at 435 for Woodrow Wilson and 88 for Roosevelt, who had run as a Progressive this time instead of a Republican like before, the popular vote was Wilson: 6,296,457 Roosevelt: 4,118,571. There were nearly five million additional votes cast for three other candidates including William H. Taft who was the sitting president and Republican nominee (and who had earned only eight electoral votes).
We also have some enduring quotes that will live forever spoken by these men, and some that may not. It’s time to challenge yourself again. Who said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country..?” Who was famous for describing “a day that will live in infamy…?” The answers are (say them with me) John F. Kennedy and Franklin D. Roosevelt (the other Roosevelt, who served four terms).
But for every popular line of Kennedy’s or Roosevelt’s we find a lesser known dose of wisdom. Here is a line that could easily be spoken in the political arguments of today, “Government should not assume for the people the inevitable burdens of existence.” Anyone? That was John Calvin Coolidge, president from 1923-1929.
Here’s another one, and the answer is in the wording, so pay attention. “I am acutely aware that you have not elected me as your president by your ballots, so I ask you to confirm me with your prayers.” The key words are “not elected me”. Some of you might be playful in your thinking and suggest George W. Bush in regards to the 2000 election, but although I am writing about presidents, I am not writing about politics, therefore, no. That’s not the answer. The affable fellow who spoke these words was our president from 1974-1977 – Gerald Ford. He had never been elected. As Nixon’s Vice-President Ford found himself unexpectedly sitting in the big leather chair after Nixon’s resignation.
I share all of this with you to hopefully help you open your eyes to all of the richness that we have in our history. This is our American history, our defining history. The common man’s ignorance to these important events is somewhat astounding and always exciting. I do not use the word ignorance to sound insulting, I use it to prove a point.
Who was President of the United States for only six months? I will give you a big hint, he was president from March 1881 to September 1881. Most people reading this will not know the answer until they find time to Google the right name. Let me ask the question another way. Which president shared the same name as a popular comic strip cat that even had a movie made with Bill Murray as the voice of this cat? – Tell me that some of you didn’t just feel a click in your brain as you sheepishly said… “Garfield?” Yes! James Garfield.
I find it fascinating to research these men who witnessed America’s growth and who sometimes contributed to it, and other times harmed us. I think of the importance of understanding what Bill Clinton meant when he said, “There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured with what is right in America.” I think it is fascinating to go back and see all that was on the line when Ronald Reagan spoke in Berlin at Brandenburg Gate, both to the USSR and the entire world and said, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
History does repeat itself and we can understand things better the second, third or fourth time around if we go back and look at the first time said event or occurrence happened. There will always be division among the voters and there will always be a party system, something even John Adams abhorred as early as the 1790’s. It’s nice to think we can all be of like minds and get along, but it’s also a fine thing to know that we can find a group of people who think like we think and want to make things better for all Americans. We live in a time of polarization of voters and hostilities between parties, but if you can step away from that and look back at where it all began and see what this country has experienced and the ways we have grown and grown together, you will be proud to be an American.
History teaches us this pride of country and I encourage you to explore it for yourself. If I may suggest a good place to start, I would highly recommend the book, “Presidential Anecdotes”, by Paul F. Boller Jr. This is a lighter take on things, but for a more serious and facts based look at presidential history, get a copy of “Presidents: All You Need to Know”, which is a publication of the Smithsonian Institution.
I find that America has no reason not to believe in better days ahead, maybe even its best days. This attitude fills me with pride and hope. Things are rough right now, but have been rough before. We face challenges now but have faced and overcome them before, and we did it together. And so it goes on. And above all that, we have our freedom. God bless America.
J. Keith Nolan