It was my privilege to hear two great lectures about Presidents on this President’s Day. My friend and colleague, John Willis, spoke in McGrory Hall on the St. Andrew’s-Sewanee campus early in the morning while around lunchtime, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Jon Meacham, gave a talk in Guerry Auditorium at the University. While their subjects were the same, and even some of their substance, it was a great pleasure to observe the different ways they came at their topics.
Willis started off with a serious of small disconnected presidential anecdotes and built up to larger and more complicated ones. Having taken questions from the students ahead of time, he admirably set out to teach the students some critical thinking skills. To one student’s query about who was the most effective president, for instance, he asked them to think through what the ways they themselves might measure effectiveness. “Is that someone who sets out not to do too much and achieves it, or someone with more ambition who doesn’t get it all done?” He was showing them a way to get underneath the pat answers one find all too often in political matters.
If you’ve heard Meacham, you know what a raconteur he is–he rolls out the stories with consummate charm, and captures the personalities of various presidents with a few deft strokes. His particular theme was that, when presidents allude to other presidents, they are inadvertently revealing something about how they themselves would like to be seen. (“Inadvertent revelations,” he joked, “are so much better than advertent ones.”) So when Clinton reminds us in a eulogy that Nixon deserves to be judged on the entirety of his career, not just the scandals, there is something more than discussion of his predecessor going on.
It was a fun day, all in all, and as I walked back to my office this afternoon, I recalled the time when I first began to really think about presidents. It was the summer of 1975, and I was learning a lot about them when I wasn’t reading Richie Rich comic books on the beach. The year before had been a fascinating one in presidential history, with the resignation of Richard Nixon capping a period of political intrigue and disgrace, just the sort of thing to fire the mind of a kid like me. The next year would be the first presidential election I really cared anything about, and I can still recall the Democratic contenders very well: Jerry Brown, Hubert Humphrey, Morris Udall, Frank Church, Henry “Scoop” Jackson, George Wallace, and of course, Jimmy Carter.
Throughout the winter of my sixth grade, my friends and I would gather around in homeroom and debate the candidates’ chances in the various primaries. Having read the Sunday Globe that weekend, I would spout the editor’s endorsement as my own considered opinion–frankly, I was shocked when Jackson didn’t win the Democratic nomination, so sure were the Globe and I of his victory. But no matter–I got my mother to take me to a Scoop Jackson rally that February. He droned on about jobs and defense spending, but I had stars in my eyes. With my “I’m For Scoop” button securely attached to my lapel, I asked my mother later in the car what she thought of the speech. She broke it to me gently. “Well, I think he’s a bit too conservative for me,” she said, adding, “I’m probably going to vote for Udall.” I fumed all the way home. Udall indeed! Why not Judas Iscariot?
But, as I say, it was my summer reading in 1975 that first got me thinking about Presidents, and one book in particular that I picked up at a store on Cape Cod entitled, Amazing But True! Stories about the Presidents by Doug Storer, which you can see to the right. As I’ve come to discover, the author Doug Storer had been a long-time associate of Robert Ripley of Believe or Not! fame, and his papers are actually housed at my alma mater, UNC-Chapel Hill. I have to imagine that researchers are constantly going through this archive and exclaiming loudly, “What! I had no idea! I literally do not know whether to believe this or not!”
From the cover of Amazing But True! Stories about the Presidents, you can tell just what kind of book it is. Andrew Jackson fighting off an assailant! JFK and the PT-109! Somebody in a bed telling Mark Twain something … something probably Amazing but True! I can still feel the pages of this book in my hand with its cheap paper, and can recall the large font and the florid lettering with which each chapter began. And let me say, too, just how pleased I am that this book-cover is every bit as wonderful as I recall it being forty years ago.
At the time I bought it, probably the least amazing person of modern times, Gerald Ford, was occupying the Presidency. Even to my twelve-year old self, Ford just didn’t really seem like he was the real President. Sure, he wasn’t a cartoon villain like Nixon, but nobody had ever voted for him, or against him. He was just sort of there in the interregnum, a place-holder, though he wouldn’t be for long. In the summer of ’75, I was just becoming aware of politics, and I was a sitting duck for a book that promised tales of adventure about our Chief Executives. In some ways, I still am. If there’s a new book about Truman out, or Lincoln, or TR, or any of those guys, I hanker to get it. I love presidential anecdotes, even if I feel sometimes that they are really just another mindless break in my reading of Richie Rich and other funnies like that. Fortunately, there are people like Willis and Meacham who can help us to see more in them.