9

GOOFBALLS!

Well, maybe if people tiptoed around you all the time and were always calling you “the most powerful man in the world,” you might start to believe it too. And all that power might start to affect your behavior in some pretty strange ways.

On the other hand, if you’re like us, you’ve probably already done some pretty strange things, never once imagining that every small utterance and tiny goofy act you ever committed would someday be scrutinized by voters, journalists, historians, and nosy busybodies like you and us.

Such is the lot of the president: every moment of his life is under a microscope, even those years before he even entertained the notion that he would someday become president.

GOOFBALL-AT-A-GLANCE

PRESIDENT:

George Washington

RANDOM GOOFY ACT(S):

Or maybe he just couldn’t find an ATM?

Washington didn’t have enough money to get to his own inauguration, so he had to borrow six hundred dollars from a neighbor.

PRESIDENT:

John Adams

RANDOM GOOFY ACT(S):

• While he was serving as the US minister to England and Thomas Jefferson was serving as the US minister to France, the two men made a trip to Stratford-upon-Avon to visit the birthplace of William Shakespeare. While there, they took a knife to one of Shakespeare’s chairs so they could take home some woodchips as souvenirs.

• He and his wife once got lost in the woods of Washington, D.C., on their way to the White House. They might still be there if a passing stranger hadn’t shown them the way home.

PRESIDENT:

Thomas Jefferson

RANDOM GOOFY ACT(S):

• He had the honor of leading the first inaugural parade through Washington. However, a parade wasn’t exactly what he had in mind—he was just walking back to his boarding house after being sworn in, and a bunch of people decided to follow.

• When the British minister to the United States arrived at the White House for his first meeting with the new president, Jefferson received him wearing only his robe and slippers.

PRESIDENT:

James Madison

RANDOM GOOFY ACT(S):

He and Thomas Jefferson were once arrested together for taking a carriage ride in the countryside of Vermont on a Sunday, which violated the blue laws of that state.

PRESIDENT:

James Monroe

RANDOM GOOFY ACT(S):

Poor James Monroe … when it was time for him to be inaugurated, he couldn’t have his ceremony in the chamber of the House of Representatives as all his predecessors had done. The problem? He and Speaker of the House Henry Clay were having a tiff, so Clay put his foot down and refused to let Monroe use the hall.

PRESIDENT:

John Quincy Adams

RANDOM GOOFY ACT(S):

America’s first cover-up in the press!

While president, he would often go from the White House to the edge of the Potomac River, shuck off his clothes, throw them on a rock, and go skinny-dipping. One day, when he returned to the rock, he found a reporter sitting on his mound of clothes. And it wasn’t just any reporter. It was a woman named Anne Royal. And she refused to leave until the president granted her an interview. Adams was only too happy to oblige her request—without getting out of the river, of course.

There is an additional irony to this story: there was Royal sitting on his clothes, yet when John Quincy was back at the White House he did not like “regular” people to sit in his presence, so he would make sure there weren’t enough chairs to go around.

PRESIDENT:

Andrew Jackson

RANDOM GOOFY ACT(S):

• One of the first things he did after being elected president was to order twenty spittoons for the White House parlors.

• He was the first president to be handed a baby to kiss as a part of his campaigning duties—but he declined the offer and passed the baby to his secretary of war instead.

• When he sent his first annual message to Congress in 1829, it was so well received that no one could believe he wrote it. When he was accused point-blank of having sent in a message written by someone else, he replied, “Don’t I deserve just as much credit for picking out the man who could write it?”

• While president, he kept a stable of thoroughbreds on the White House grounds. But when he entered them into races at a nearby track, he used an alias so no one would know they were his.

PRESIDENT:

Martin Van Buren

RANDOM GOOFY ACT(S):

Can you guess what came between him and his Calvin Kleins?

Rumor has it he was quite a dandy and used to dab a little cologne on his whiskers and lace himself up in a corset every day.

PRESIDENT:

William Henry Harrison

RANDOM GOOFY ACT(S):

His campaign slogan during the 1840 presidential campaign was “Keep the Ball Rolling to Washington.” Of course his supporters had no choice but to roll a huge ball of paper across the country to the Whig convention in Baltimore.

Harrison was sometimes called “General Mum” because he never spoke out on any of the major issues while campaigning for president. This was no accident; the truth was that he had nothing to say.

PRESIDENT:

John Tyler

RANDOM GOOFY ACT(S):

“Wunnerful! Wunnerful!”

He loved to dance. In fact, he’s the guy who made the polka an American household word.

PRESIDENT:

James Polk

RANDOM GOOFY ACT(S):

• At age sixteen he had an operation to have his gallstones removed … and demanded the operation be done without anesthesia.

• A matter of great concern to him as president was how to protect his arm from injury after a day of handshaking … and he was sure he’d found the trick:

I could shake hands during the whole day without suffering any bad effects from it … If a man surrendered his arm to be shaken, by some horizontally, by others perpendicularly, and by others again with a strong grip, he could not fail to suffer severely from it, but that if he would shake and not be shaken, grip and not be gripped, taking care always to squeeze the hand of his adversary as hard as he squeezed him, that he suffered no inconvenience from it … I could generally anticipate when I was to have a strong grip, and that when I observed a strong man approaching I generally took advantage of him by being a little quicker then he was and seizing him by the tips of his fingers, giving him a hearty shake, and thus preventing him from getting a full grip upon me.

Maybe Polk wasn’t so goofy after all

* * *

In the good old days when security was less of a problem and there were events at the White House that were open to the public, presidents would sometimes shake as many as eight thousand hands at a stretch, at the rate of forty to fifty per minute. On one particular occasion, after Abe Lincoln had spent a full three hours at a reception pressing the flesh before signing an important bill, he found his arm was “almost paralyzed” and it was next to impossible for him to hold onto a pen. After dropping his writing instrument once, he persevered and picked it up again … to sign the Emancipation Proclamation into law.

PRESIDENT:

Zachary Taylor

RANDOM GOOFY ACT(S):

He had no political experience when nominated for president, had never voted before, and didn’t even know what party he belonged to. When the notification of his nomination for president arrived in the mail, he didn’t respond to it—not because he didn’t want the job but because he was too cheap to pay the ten cents of postage due.

PRESIDENT:

Millard Fillmore

RANDOM GOOFY ACT(S):

• One of his greatest accomplishments as president? He successfully negotiated a treaty with Peru for the use of bird droppings.

• Another of Fillmore’s great accomplishments? He bought the White House’s first stove. When the cook couldn’t figure out how to use it, Fillmore went down to the Patent Office, studied the drawings until he understood how it worked, then went back to the White House and taught the cook.

PRESIDENT:

Franklin Pierce

RANDOM GOOFY ACT(S):

Pierce was ready to disown his own brother over antislavery legislation: “Ben, they tell me you are going to vote for the abolition resolutions. Now, I am not here, of course, to dictate to you; but if you vote for those resolutions … you are no brother of mine; I will never speak to you again.”

PRESIDENT:

James Buchanan

RANDOM GOOFY ACT(S):

James Buchanan was the first president to be visited by a member of the Royal Family. Buchanan considered the visit to be such an honor that he let Prince Albert Edward sleep in his bed while he slept on a couch out in the hall.

PRESIDENT:

Abraham Lincoln

RANDOM GOOFY ACT(S):

• It was during a cabinet meeting at which all his cabinet members disagreed with him that he summed up his position this way: “Seven nays, one aye; the ayes have it.”

• Once, before he was president, he led twenty or so soldiers on a march during the Black Hawk Indian War. When they reached a fence with a gate, he couldn’t for the life of him remember the proper marching order to give the men so they would proceed single file through the gate. So, after thinking for a minute, he ordered, “This company is dismissed for two minutes, when it will fall in again on the other side of the gate.”

• He is the only president to have faced enemy fire while in office. It happened when he was visiting Fort Stevens during the Civil War; he mounted a parapet to get a better view of the battlefield, and being six feet four, he made an easy mark. Rumor has it that when a solider (said to be future Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes) shouted at him to “Get down, you damned fool, before you get shot!” the president did as he was told.

• No one loved puns and wordplay more than he did. When Stephen Douglas referred to him as “two-faced,” he replied by asking, “If I had another face, do you think I would wear this one?” When he saw a heavyset woman in a large feathered cap fall down as she was crossing the street, he commented: “Reminds me of a duck … She’s got feathers on her head and down on her behind.” And when he heard a rumor that Edward Stanton, his secretary of war, had called him “a damned fool,” he gave this honest reply: “If Stanton said I was a damned fool, then I must be one, for he is nearly always right and generally says what he means.”

PRESIDENT:

Andrew Johnson

RANDOM GOOFY ACT(S):

Before he got into politics, he was a tailor—the only tailor ever to be elected president. Even as president it was rare for him to pass a tailor shop—no matter where he was—without stopping in to say hello. He was so proud of his skill with a needle and thread that while governor of Tennessee he took time out from his gubernatorial duties to make a suit for a friend, who just happened to be the governor of Kentucky. The grateful governor, previously a blacksmith, sent him a shovel and a pair of tongs in return.

A moonlighting president?

* * *

Even as president, Johnson wore only suits that were tailor-made … by his own hand.

PRESIDENT:

Ulysses S. Grant

RANDOM GOOFY ACT(S):

As a boy, his father sent him to a neighbor’s house to buy a colt for which his father had already offered twenty dollars but that the neighbor insisted was worth twenty-five. The last set of instructions his father gave him was to offer twenty, and if the neighbor wouldn’t take it, to offer twenty-two-fifty. Only as a last resort was he to offer the full twenty-five. When he got to the neighbor’s house he immediately reported: “Papa says I may offer you twenty dollars for the colt, but if you won’t take that I am to offer twenty-two and a half, and if you won’t take that, to give you twenty-five.”

• He was actually given the name Hiram Ulysses Grant but hated the acronym his name created: HUG. Therefore, when his name was incorrectly recorded as Ulysses Simpson Grant while a student at West Point, he never bothered to point out the error.

• Although a great war hero, anytime Grant saw blood or a piece of raw meat, his head would start to spin.

• He had a thing about nudity; he didn’t like it. He refused to ever get completely naked—not even to bathe—and at the age of sixty claimed that no one had seen him without clothes since he was a little boy.

• While walking in the rain to a reception in his honor one day, he offered to share his umbrella with another man headed the same way. The man, it turned out, was also going to the reception and confided, “I merely go to satisfy a personal curiosity. Between us, I have always thought that Grant was very much an overrated man.” “That’s my view also,” was Grant’s reply.

PRESIDENT:

Rutherford B. Hayes

RANDOM GOOFY ACT(S):

He and his family liked to entertain a lot of guests at the White House. Sometimes, when they invited too many people to spend the night, son Webb had to sleep on top of an old billiards table in the White House attic.

PRESIDENT:

James Garfield

RANDOM GOOFY ACT(S):

He was the first president to ever talk on a telephone. Here’s what he said to Alexander Graham Bell, who was at the other end of a thirteen-mile wire, to mark this momentous occasion: “Please speak a little more slowly.”

PRESIDENT:

Chester Alan Arthur

RANDOM GOOFY ACT(S):

He enacted the country’s first major immigration law: his goal was to prevent criminals, paupers, idiots, and the insane from entering the country.

PRESIDENT:

Grover Cleveland

RANDOM GOOFY ACT(S):

He is the only president ever to get married in the White House. He wrote the invitations himself and worked in his office until 7 p.m. on the day of the wedding, then knocked off so he could get ready for the ceremony and reception. And while he did promise to “love, honor, and comfort” his bride, he refused to promise to “obey” her.

PRESIDENT:

Benjamin Harrison

RANDOM GOOFY ACT(S):

He and his family were the first to have electricity in the White House—but they left the lights on all night because they were afraid to touch the switches.

PRESIDENT:

Teddy Roosevelt

RANDOM GOOFY ACT(S):

• While hunting one day, he came across a small bear cub and refused to shoot it. The incident was reported in the news, which inspired a political cartoonist to draw his interpretation of the scene, which then inspired a toy manufacturer to come out with a line of stuffed animals he called “Teddy Bears.” Ironically, President Roosevelt hated to be called Teddy.

• Teddy Roosevelt … Madison Avenue copywriter? Well, it has been said that after drinking a cup of Maxwell House coffee while visiting Andrew Jackson’s home, the Hermitage, near Nashville, Roosevelt said, “Delicious. This coffee is good to the last drop!”

PRESIDENT:

William Howard Taft

RANDOM GOOFY ACT(S):

• As a young lawyer, he visited another town on business and discovered the next train home was many hours away. Taking a second look at the train schedule, he saw that a faster train would be passing soon but wasn’t scheduled to stop at his station. Without hesitation he sent a wire to the superintendent of the line asking if the train could stop at his station for a large party. When he climbed aboard the train alone, the conductor looked puzzled. Taft looked him in the eye, made a gesture toward his three-hundred-pound frame, and told the conductor he was the “large party” for which the train was making the special stop.

• When you’re as heavy as Taft was, people will nag you to death trying to get you to lose weight. This is true even if you are president, as he found out; between his wife and his doctor, he was often on a diet, and whenever he was dieting he would get cranky. Once, when he went off on a train trip, he became enraged at discovering his wife had had the dining car removed. “What’s the use of being president if you can’t have a train with a diner on it?” he asked and demanded that the crew stop at the next station and restore the dining car to its rightful place.

• Perhaps it was because of his size, but he sometimes had a heck of a time staying awake. His aide, Archie Butts, had one method of waking him when others were around: He would cough. His wife employed a slightly different technique: she’d give him an elbow in the ribs.

PRESIDENT:

Woodrow Wilson

RANDOM GOOFY ACT(S):

Who is this clown???

He was the first president to earn a PhD, but in his heart he wanted to be a vaudeville actor. As a young boy, he even ran away to join the circus—and went home with padding in his pants in anticipation of the greeting he was going to get from his father.

PRESIDENT:

Warren Harding

RANDOM GOOFY ACT(S):

See the Goofball Hall of Fame on page 238.

PRESIDENT:

Calvin Coolidge

RANDOM GOOFY ACT(S):

See the Goofball Hall of Fame on page 238.

PRESIDENT:

Herbert Hoover

RANDOM GOOFY ACT(S):

Under his reign the White House servants quickly learned one thing: the president didn’t like to see them. According to one account:

[Hoover] did not like seeing the servants in the halls; and so they hid when the White House bells announced his presence, footmen holding trays high in the air as they scurried into hall closets already crowded with maids.

PRESIDENT:

Franklin Delano Roosevelt

RANDOM GOOFY ACT(S):

• He was a rich, good-looking guy who just happened to have a cousin in the White House. No surprise, then, that his own local politicians began to court him and encourage him to enter local politics. One story has it that when he was first approached by a local political boss and encouraged to enter the race for the New York state assembly, his first response was that he would consider it, but he wanted to talk to his mother about it first. “Frank,” the local politician replied, “there are men back in Poughkeepsie waiting for your answer. They won’t like to hear that you had to ask your mother.”

• When visited at the White House by the king and queen of England, he let Eleanor serve them hot dogs for dinner.

• His idea of a good time was to play poker with lots of wild cards. He also loved collecting stamps and never left on a trip without taking at least one of his stamp albums with him.

• He had “Stolen from the White House” embossed on the White House matches.

PRESIDENT:

Harry Truman

• He loved to use the word “manure.” Once asked why she let him use such language, his wife, Bess, explained that it took her twenty years to get him to say just that.

• In his early days of politics, he joined the Ku Klux Klan in Jackson County, Missouri, because he knew he couldn’t win the judge’s seat he was running for without their support; a year after he was elected, he resigned his membership and got his ten-dollar membership fee back.

• When he visited Disneyland he refused to ride on the “Dumbo, the Elephant” ride because he was a Democrat and the elephant, of course, is the mascot of the Republican Party.

PRESIDENT:

Dwight D. Eisenhower

RANDOM GOOFY ACT(S):

That’s “Sir, General Picasso, Sir!”

He loved to paint but couldn’t draw worth a darn, so he would have someone else sketch pictures, and then he would paint inside the lines. Believe it or not, this is how the national paint-by-numbers fad of the 1950s began.

PRESIDENT:

John F. Kennedy

RANDOM GOOFY ACT(S):

• As a young man, he seemed to have a good mind for his studies but was clueless about the world. As he once described himself: “Though I may not be able to remember material things such as tickets, gloves, and so on, I can remember things like Ivanhoe, and the last time we had an exam on it I got ninety-eight.” At the age of thirteen in 1930, while the rest of the country was suffering from the debilitating effects of the stock market crash and the Great Depression, Jack wrote home: “Please send me the Literary Digestbecause I didn’t know about the Market Slump until a long time after.”

• He had a hard time with the concept of money for all of his adult life. For one thing, he never seemed to have any cash on him—which meant his friends were constantly shelling out money to cover the costs of his cabs and dinners and movies. Perhaps it was really his father’s fault; even though Joe Sr. was one of the richest men in the country and was at one time head of the Securities and Exchange Commission, he forbade any of his children to talk about money at the dinner table.

• When he appointed his brother Robert to the position of attorney general, he jokingly remarked that he wanted to see his little brother get some legal experience as a government lawyer before he had to go out into the real world and try his hands at private practice.

PRESIDENT:

Lyndon B. Johnson

RANDOM GOOFY ACT(S):

• He won his first seat in the Senate by campaigning all over Texas in a helicopter. Every time he spotted someone (or a town or city) down below, he’d boom out over the copter’s PA: “Hello down there. This is your friend, Lyndon Johnson.”

• As part of his drive to prove to the American people that the government could spend their money wisely, he would turn off every light in the White House he felt was burning unnecessarily. Unfortunately for everyone else, this meant that if they left their offices for even a few minutes they were likely to return to a dark room—not to mention a walk down a dark White House hallway bumping into other staff members and aides.

• He often called spontaneous press conferences and had surprised journalists walk along with him as he gave them a briefing. The only problem was that he walked so fast everyone had to run to keep up with him—which made it hard to listen carefully, ask intelligent questions, or carry on a conversation. But he was a great fan of these fast-paced press conferences, which he called “Walkie-Talkies.”

• LBJ was also famous for holding meetings while he was sitting on the “throne” (if you catch our drift).

PRESIDENT:

Richard Nixon

RANDOM GOOFY ACT(S):

• According to a former Secret Service agent, when Nixon went to the doctor he liked to put the hospital gown on backward and “tramp down the hall with the front flying open. The nurses would stop in their tracks.”

• Once, just before doing an interview with David Frost, he turned to Frost and asked: “Well, did you do any fornicating this weekend?”

• While speaking at a Junior Chamber of Commerce meeting, he reflected on a trip he once made to Caracas, Venezuela, where he had been pelted by stones: “I got stoned in Caracas,” he said. “I’ll tell you one thing; it’s a lot different from getting stoned at a Jaycee convention.”

PRESIDENT:

Gerald Ford

RANDOM GOOFY ACT(S):

• Rumor has it he showed up for his wedding with a brown shoe on one foot and a black shoe on the other.

• One night when he took his dog out for a walk, he discovered he had locked himself out of the White House. Just as he resigned himself to the fact he was going to have to spend the night outside in his robe and slippers, a guard discovered him and let him back in.

• His wife, Betty, once woke up and heard him talking in his sleep: “Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank, you, thank you,” he said over and over again. When she woke him, he told her he had again been dreaming of standing in a receiving line.

PRESIDENT:

Jimmy Carter

RANDOM GOOFY ACT(S):

When he was a boy, he took his mother’s diamond engagement ring to school and gave it to his teacher, Mrs. Forrest, with this explanation: “My daddy can always buy Momma another one.”

Fifty-four years after FDR’s first “Fireside Chat,” Carter tried to duplicate FDR’s success, appearing on television in the Oval Office beside a roaring fire, wearing a cardigan sweater instead of the traditional presidential suit. While his fireside chat may not have gone over as well as FDR’s did, it did earn him a new nickname: “Jimmy Cardigan.”

PRESIDENT:

Ronald Reagan

RANDOM GOOFY ACT(S):

• He was named West Coast Father of the Year in 1976—the same year he forbade daughter Patti from bringing her boyfriend home because the two were living in sin.

• As a sportscaster for WHO in Des Moines, he would fake the play-by-play of Chicago Cubs games by making up the plays as he read a news ticker tape. One day the ticker tape died mid-game, so he had to improvise. For six minutes he had the batter swing at pitch after pitch and sent each hit over the foul line until the ticker tape began to run again and he could return to reporting on the actual game.

PRESIDENT:

George H. W. Bush

• According to the book Marching In Place, The Status Quo Presidency of George Bush by Time magazine White House correspondents Michael Duffy and Dan Goodgame, George Bush elevated goofballness to an art form:

Early American Reddit

* * *

Jimmy Carter once tried his hand at communicating with the people via a call-in TV talk show called Ask Mr. Carter where, presumably, callers could “Ask him anything.” For two hours he took calls from the American people. A total of nine million people called to ask a question of the president; only forty-two callers actually got through.

While running for president in 1988, Bush spent Halloween night running through his campaign airplane wearing a rubber George Bush mask and shouting “Read my lips! Read my lips!”

• He once invited Saturday Night Live’s Dana Carvey to the White House so the comedian who had become famous impersonating him could do his impersonation to his face. Soon, both Bush and Carvey were “doing Bush” at one another. And when, as Duffy and Goodgame say, Carvey began “chopping the air with one hand and talking about ‘Daaaan Quaaaaayle—getting stronger, learning ev-er-y daaay,’ Bush doubled over in laughter … By the end of 1991 Bush was doing imitations-of-Carvey-doing-imitations-of-Bush during televised press conferences.”

• Playing games and having a good time was a great Bush pastime. One of his favorite games as president was called “Light ’em up.” Say Duffy and Goodgame:

After taking the oath of office, Bush resembled nothing so much as a medieval boy king who woke up one morning, found himself atop the throne, and began tugging at the bell ropes for servants, ordering up royal carriages, and scheduling banquets and tournaments … A delighted Bush singlehandedly organized an all–White House horseshoe pitching contest, drawing up some of the ladders himself … Bush’s ebullience seemed limitless—as hundreds of local congress people and political officials who attempted to buttonhole him during a presidential visit to their states would discover. Most solons try to put to good use the brief ride from the local airport into town, making a pitch for help with a local project or a hand in solving a snarled political problem. Bush, however, often preempted such appeals with an adult car game called “Light ’em up.” In the back of his armored Cadillac limousine, Bush faced forward with his guest on the jump seat facing aft. As the limo moved through the streets, Bush would pick out someone from the crowd, usually an attractive woman or child, point, and wait until—pow!—eye contact and the victim realizes, He’s looking at me! That’s when the target “lit up.” Because the limo was moving forward, it fell to the guest facing aft to report to the president when he asked, “Did I get her? Did I light her up?” And then the game would begin again.

PRESIDENT:

Bill Clinton

RANDOM GOOFY ACT(S):

He didn’t inhale … and he didn’t swallow either.

• In 1996 scientists came to the conclusion that chocolate can affect the same part of the brain that is turned on by smoking marijuana. When Clinton was asked to comment, he explained that he had once tried some chocolate … but didn’t swallow.

• In February of 1994, Clinton visited a truck plant in Louisiana. In the course of his visit, he spoke to the workers of the plant, and in his remarks he recounted that his first vehicle had been a truck. But he didn’t leave it at that. Instead, as the New York Times tells it, “Mr. Clinton confided that he had lined the truck bed with Astroturf, adding with a sly grin, ‘You don’t want to know why.’” Well, of course we all wanted to know why—but the next day the only explanation Clinton could give (other than the obvious one) was that he’d covered the truck bed with Astroturf so he could haul luggage in it. “It wasn’t for what everybody thought it was for when I made the comment, I’ll tell you that. I’m guilty of a lot of things, but I didn’t ever do that.”

PRESIDENT:

George W. Bush

RANDOM GOOFY ACT(S):

Those who know him know that George W. Bush loves to give a nickname to just about everyone he meets:

• Karl Rove, deputy chief of staff: “Boy Genius” and “Turd Blossom”

• Condoleezza Rice, secretary of state: “Guru”

• Karen Hughes, adviser: “Lima Green Bean” and “High Prophet”

• Dick Cheney, vice president: “Big Time”

• Andrew Card, former chief of staff: “Tangent Man”

• Vladimir Putin: “Pootie-Poot” and “Ostrich Legs”

• Tony Blair, British prime minister: “Landslide”

• Jean Chrétien, ex-Canadian prime minister: “Dino” (short for “Dinosaur”)

• His father, former President Bush: “41”

• His mother, Barbara Bush: “No. 1”

• His wife, First Lady Laura Bush: “Bushie” and “First”

• Donald Rumsfeld, defense secretary: “Rummy”

• Colin Powell, ex-secretary of state: “Baloonfoot”

• Paul O’Neill, ex-Treasury secretary: “Big O”

• George Tenet, ex-CIA director: “Brother George”

PRESIDENT:

Barack Obama

RANDOM GOOFY ACT(S):

See the Goofball Hall of Fame on the next page.

GOOFBALL HALL OF FAME

Historians love to rate and rank our presidents. And when it comes to assessing which were the most successful and which were the biggest failures, their conclusions are pretty predictable.

• Nominees for Best President are consistently Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Roosevelt.

• Nominees for Worst President are consistently Harding, Harding, Harding, Buchanan, and Grant. More recently, George W. Bush gets added to many lists.

Of course, when perusing these ratings it is always important to consider the source. And the criteria.

For instance, we happen to think George Washington was a horrible president. And if you thumb back through this book you’ll see why: He was a boring old fart who made absolutely no effort toward providing the media with grist for their headline mills. No affairs, no scandals, no corruption—he didn’t even drink too much or fight with his wife. How much fun was that for the American public?

And we’re not the only one who says so. Nathaniel Hawthorne came to the same conclusion, wondering if “anyone has ever seen Washington in the nude … It is inconceivable. He had no nakedness, but was born with his clothes on, and his hair powdered, and made a stately bow on his first appearance in the world.” And Emerson concurred: “Every hero becomes a bore at last … They cry up the virtues of George Washington—Damn George Washington!”

Washington—historians can have him.

The more things change … the more they stay the same

* * *

Well, the New York Times certainly showed the world what it thought of Warren G. Harding at the time of his nomination:

“The firm and perfect flower of the cowardice and imbecility of the senatorial cabal.”

The paper reversed its opinion four months later and proclaimed that he was “gradually assuming undisputed leadership.”

DID WE MENTION …

As president, Harding ran up a debt with his stockbroker of about two hundred thousand dollars.

And then he died.

One of Warren Harding’s favorite activities as president was to visit the Gayety Burlesque, which provided him with a special box seat where he could see but couldn’t be seen.

Perhaps lazy is the wrong word. Harding actually kept quite a rigorous schedule:

• He played table tennis every morning.

• He played tennis every afternoon.

• He played golf two days a week.

• He played poker two nights a week.

• At noon every day he took time for a little constitutional, which also gave him an opportunity to shake hands with White House visitors.

And don’t forget about the scandalous side of Harding

* * *

Of course we’ve cataloged it all for you in Chapter Three.

Harding on Harding

“I am not fit for this office and should never

have been here.”

“Oftentimes, as I sit here, I don’t seem to

grasp that I am president.”

“Jud, you have a college education, haven’t

you? I don’t know what to do or where to turn

on this taxation matter. Somewhere there

must be a book that tells all about it, where I

could go to straighten it out in my mind. But

I don’t know where the book is, and maybe I

couldn’t read it if I found it!”

VICE-GOOFBALL

What’re the Odds?

You take a guy like Warren Harding, goofball par excellence, and you’ve got to wonder where (or how) he could ever find a vice president goofy enough to complement his lying, cheating, lazy, goofball ways. But Harding did it again; he achieved the impossible.

His name was Calvin Coolidge.

In contrast to Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge was an honest, hardworking family man who filled the role of president quite competently. He took office following Harding’s death in 1923 and was reelected in 1924. In his five and a half years in office Coolidge reduced the national debt by about $2 billion. He reduced federal taxes three times and cleaned up Harding’s fiscal messes by attacking the US budget system and tinkering with it until it ran more smoothly.

Then, in 1928, while things were going along nicely and Americans everywhere were fat and happy and prosperous and Calvin Coolidge was an extremely popular man and it was assumed he would be easily reelected to a second term, he made this announcement to the press and the nation in typical Calvin Coolidge style: “I do not choose to run for president in 1928.”

And that was all he said.

Calvin Speaks!

His nickname was “Silent Cal.” He was famous for saying … nothing.

• From an actual press conference with Calvin Coolidge: “Have you any statement on the campaign?”

“No.”

“Can you tell us something about the world situation?”

“No.”

“Any information about Prohibition?”

“No … [And] remember—don’t quote me.”

• While Coolidge didn’t think much of all the pomp and circumstance of Washington, he never turned down an invitation. Yet, once at a party or function he would talk as little as possible and leave by 10:00 p.m. When asked why he attended all these functions that he so obviously disliked, he replied, “Got to eat somewhere.”

• While attending a dinner party, a woman seated near him bet she could get him to say three words. “You lose” was his only reply.

• A presidential aide once recalled a summons to the Oval Office by Coolidge one day. After arriving, the aide spent thirty minutes there in the room with the president—yet Silent Cal didn’t say a word. Finally, confused, the aide got up to leave. When he reached the door Coolidge said, “Thank you for coming. I wanted to think.”

• His first cabinet meeting after Harding’s death lasted only fifteen minutes.

“How could they tell?”

—DOROTHY PARKER ON THE DEATH OF CALVIN COOLIDGE

Calvin Coolidge—A Real Barrel of Fun

• Calvin Coolidge’s definition of fun? Riding the mechanical bucking horse he kept in his bedroom at the White House. He rode it almost every day.

• On his first day in the White House, Cal got so bored he called the same friend on the phone five times. Sometimes, when boredom set in, he would hit all the buttons on his desk at one time just to see everyone come running to see what was wrong.

• When Cal moved into the White House, he brought his own rocking chair; he liked to sit on the front porch and rock at night but quit after becoming annoyed with crowds of curious passersby.

• Coolidge loved to go fishing, but he made the Secret Service bait his hook.

“Who You Callin’ Cheap?!”

Cal was not only famous for being tight with a word; he was also famous for being tight with a buck.

• When he was in the mood for a good cigar, Cal would reach for his stash of Fonseca Corona Fines deLuxe, which he got for twenty-one dollars per hundred. But when he wanted to share a cigar with a good friend, he had another stash of cigars … that cost him about three cents apiece.

A real wild guy!

* * *

But don’t start thinking of him as a daredevil. Given a choice, Cal always preferred that his chauffeur stick to a nice safe speed of about sixteen miles per hour.

The further adventures of Calvin Coolidge

* * *

One day, an aide from the Library of Congress made a trip to the White House to arrange all the books in the library. As he sorted books Coolidge’s dog kept nipping at his feet. Finally he got tired of shooing the dog away and did what anyone might do: he chucked a book at it. But he missed the dog, and the book bounced once and then hit something hard behind the curtain … and out stepped the president, who had been hiding.

“Warm day,” Coolidge said, and quickly left the room.

• To save money, Coolidge tried to raise chickens at the White House. But for some reason, the chickens never tasted quite right. The mystery of the weird-tasting chickens was finally solved when someone pointed out that the chickens were penned right over the spot where Teddy Roosevelt had once grown mint.

• Cal liked to wander around the White House late at night—in his nightshirt. He often snuck into the kitchen and tried to figure out where all the White House leftovers had been stashed.

• Cal once drove the White House cook to quit because Cal didn’t believe it would take six whole hams to feel sixty people at a White House state dinner.

Or Maybe He Wasn’t So Goofy

“I should like to be known as a former president who tried to mind his own business.”

—CALVIN COOLIDGE

Goofball Hall of Fame:

HONORABLE MENTION

President: Barack Obama

Random goofy acts:

None.

Barack Obama can be very funny—we’ve all seen that in his comic appearances on TV with David Letterman, Jimmy Kimmel, Jimmy Fallon, Jon Stewart, and others. But in those appearances he also seems very calculated, never random.

At first, as your authors and catalogers of the random goofy acts of 42 other presidents, we thought there was something wrong with us for not being able to find some good random goofy tidbits about the man. But that kind of goofy story or anecdote just doesn’t seem to exist for President Obama as they exist for all other presidents, and we think perhaps we have found the reason why:

In October 2008, LA Times reporter Peter Nicholas wrote a story with the headline:

Confessions from the campaign trail

You spend 18 hours a day covering Obama, you wish he’d loosen up.

Here are some excerpts from the story:

• For the last year and a half I’ve covered the presidential race, focusing first on Hillary Clinton, then moving over to Obama.

“After Clinton’s defeat in the Iowa caucuses, she decided she needed an emergency reinvention. She began mixing with reporters, sipping a glass of wine late at night in the aisle of her campaign plane and unburdening herself about the state of the race. As her prospects dimmed, her accessibility grew. Sometimes she was off the record, but you can’t say she wasn’t fun.

Not so with Obama. One of the striking ironies is that a man who draws tens of thousands of people to his rallies, whose charisma is likened to that of John F. Kennedy, can be sort of a bore.”

• “I’ve watched Obama demonstrate a soccer kick to his daughter in Chicago; devour a cheesesteak in Philly; navigate a roller rink in Indiana; drive a bumper car; and catapult 125 feet in the air on an amusement-park ride called “Big Ben.” He’s done it all with dogged professionalism, but with little show of spontaneity. After all this time with him, I still can’t say with certainty who he is.”

• “Changing the subject, he asked me about my hat. I wear a big floppy hat on sunny days, and he had seen it at an outdoor news conference.

“‘I use it to block the sun,’ I said.

“Does the brim cover your ears? Obama asked.

“‘Well, my ears,’ I said.

“He drew back and laughed. ‘You’re making fun of my ears?!’ he said.

“I told him our family has had medical issues with the sun. He quietly took that in. I wasn’t expecting any empathy—and didn’t need any—but I felt surprised nonetheless that he evinced little or no interest. It seemed like a chance to make a human connection, if he wanted one.”

In the New York Times in September 2012, Jodi Kantor reported lack of randomness as well in an article entitled:

The Competitor in Chief

Obama Plays to Win, in Politics and Everything Else

Here are some excerpts:

• “Four years ago, Barack Obama seemed as if he might be a deliberate professor of a leader, maybe with a touch of Hawaiian mellowness. He has also turned out to be a voraciously competitive perfectionist. Aides and friends say so in interviews, but Mr. Obama’s own words of praise and derision say it best: he is a perpetually aspiring overachiever, often grading himself and others with report-card terms like “outstanding” or “remedial course” (as in: Republicans need one).”

• “Even by the standards of the political world, Mr. Obama’s obsession with virtuosity and proving himself the best are remarkable, those close to him say. (Critics call it arrogance.) More than a tic, friends and aides say, it is a core part of his worldview, formed as an outsider child who grew up to defy others’ views of the limits of his abilities. When he speaks to students, he almost always emphasizes living up to their potential.”

• “For someone dealing with the world’s weightiest matters, Mr. Obama spends surprising energy perfecting even less consequential pursuits. He has played golf 104 times since becoming president, according to Mark Knoller of CBS News, who monitors his outings, and he asks superior players for tips that have helped lower his scores. He decompresses with card games on Air Force One, but players who do not concentrate risk a reprimand (“You’re not playing, you’re just gambling,” he once told Arun Chaudhary, his former videographer).

“His idea of birthday relaxation is competing in an Olympic-style athletic tournament with friends, keeping close score. The 2009 version ended with a bowling event. Guess who won, despite his history of embarrassingly low scores? The president, it turned out, had been practicing in the White House alley.

“When he reads a book to children at the annual White House Easter Egg Roll, Mr. Obama seems incapable of just flipping open a volume and reading. In 2010, he began by announcing that he would perform “the best rendition ever” of Green Eggs and Ham, ripping into his Sam-I-Ams with unusual conviction. Two years later at the same event, he read Where the Wild Things Are with even more animation, roooooaring his terrible roar and gnaaaaashing his terrible teeth. By the time he got to the wild rumpus, he was howling so loudly that Bo, the first dog, joined in.”

On second thought, that is pretty random. And pretty goofy. But surely not, we suspect, in the way President Obama had hoped. And for that reason, he gets an “Honorable Mention” in the Goofball-Hall-of-Fame.

“You’re likable enough, Hillary”*

* * *

More revealing insight into “The competitor in chief”

• “I think that I’m a better speechwriter than my speechwriters.”—Barack Obama

• “I know more about policies on any particular issue than my policy directors.”—Barack Obama

• “I’ll tell you right now that I’m going to think I’m a better political director than my political director.”—Barack Obama

* Go back and watch the clip on YouTube. The smooth-talking “Yes, We Can” and “Change We Can Believe In” guy suddenly looks very cold, calculating, and cruel.

“And the Goofball-Hall-of-Fame” Winner Is …”

Harding, on the other hand, is our kind of guy. His life was a mess. He had two mistresses, an illegitimate child, a handful of friends in appointed positions who were robbing the country blind, and he was totally unfit for the job. (And he was the first to admit it.) And to cap it all off, his vice president, Calvin Coolidge, was every bit the goofball he was.

Warren Harding just wanted to have fun. So he got himself elected president because, hey!, who has more toys and time and fun than the leader of the entire Western world?

Finally, Warren Harding’s our kind of guy because he broke all the rules (objective, moral, constitutional, biblical, etc.), had a great time doing it, yet did such a great job of manipulating the nation and the press that the people were convinced he was a patriot, a great leader—hell, almost a saint—when he died.

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