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The Presidency: An Institution

The creation of the presidency was one of the grand achievements of the Constitutional Convention that met in Philadelphia in 1787. Although the controversy between the large and small states regarding their representation in Congress was the first order of business, the delegates did not delay long in taking up the subject of the executive. Without hesitation they referred to the executive they were establishing as the president. The Constitution names as president the presiding officer of the Senate, but the appellation is understood today to belong alone to the chief executive of the United States.

In contrast to many countries with parliamentary forms of government, where the office of president, or head of state, is mainly ceremonial, in the United States the president is vested with great authority and is arguably the most powerful elected official in the world. The nation's founders originally intended the presidency to be a narrowly restricted institution. They distrusted executive authority because their experience with colonial governors had taught them that executive power was inimical to liberty, because they felt betrayed by the actions of George III, the king of Great Britain and Ireland, and because they considered a strong executive incompatible with the republicanism embraced in the Declaration of Independence (1776).

Basic to the whole phantasmagoria are two roles that George Washington (1789-1797) has played in the American psyche: first as the father of our country, and second as human equivalent of the American flag. The confusion of the human Washington with the American flag has altered his image in differing ways. When the people are happy with their nation, as they were during most of the nineteenth century, Washington is deified.

When, as in contemporary times, people are disillusioned, they enjoy suspecting Washington’s integrity, even to the extent of welcoming with enthusiasm the false charge that as commander in chief he anticipated modern crooked business practice by cheating on his expense account. During this down phase many have sought in Washington’s presumed misdeeds justification for their own bad behavior. Mount Vernon was for years plagued by visitors demanding to be shown the field where Washington grew his marijuana crop. Washington, we are told, was known as “the stallion of the Potomac”; no pure woman could without danger be left alone in his presence. The famous English historian Arnold Joseph Toynbee vented his spleen concerning American disobedience during the Revolution by stating that Washington died because of a chill received while on an illicit visit to an adolescent girl in the slave quarters.

More persistent are the legends that were fabricated and widely disseminated during the nineteenth century, when his prestige was so high that zealots of all political and moral persuasions forged Washington’s endorsement for whatever cause they wished to dignify. The reigning genius in this endeavor was Parson Weems, whose Life of George Washington, an expanded Sunday School tract, went through more than eighty editions. Feeling a need to spice up the fifth edition, Weems invented a morality play about a cherry tree, little George, his hatchet, and his inability to lie. For generations this goody-goody tale darkened Washington’s public image.

Popular Imagination

  1. The George Washington character has not been featured in a major film, although he has been represented in minor roles in many movies.
  2. Andrew Jackson is the third most represented president in movies; Charlton Heston played Jackson twice.
  3. Abraham Lincoln has been represented in more than 150 films, making him the most frequently portrayed president.
  4. Rutherford B. Hayes' wife Lucy was the first president's wife to be called "first lady."
  5. John F. Kennedy ranks second in film portrayals; the most well-known are PT 109 (1963), Prince Jack (1984), and JFK (1991).

Anyone adapting the life story of our ninth president, William Henry Harrison, would really have trouble making him a sympathetic character. He became prominent during the Indian Wars mostly for being an expert Indian fighter, which, back in 1811, was still a legit way to get famous. In 1840, Harrison ran for president on a campaign of pure lies and deception: The wealthy, aristocratic Harrison portrayed himself as a hard-drinking everyman who resided in a log cabin, while portraying his opponent, Martin VanBuren, as a privileged snob. The truth of the matter is that Harrison grew up on a luxurious estate in Virginia, while VanBuren grew up poor and actually had resided in a log cabin. After winning a landslide election, Harrison gave the longest inauguration speech of any president ever - almost two hours long - during a cold, rainy day in March, without wearing a coat or hat. He caught pneumonia and was dead a month later. Of course, this was all after he had a bunch of kids with one of his slaves and sold most of them. "Not a nice guy" is what we're saying here.

Old Rough and Ready Zachary Taylor was a prominent general during the Mexican War (the one where America started a war with Mexico for no reason and then stole half their country). By the time the election of 1848 rolled around, Taylor was a politically independent figure: In fact, he was so independent that he had never actually voted in his life. When he assumed office in 1849, the country was deeply divided over slavery â€" Taylor's political inexperience showed and he was able to do very little to help. He died just 16 months after his inauguration after attending a party where he ate a big bowl of cherries and some milk. Apparently, the general who had survived three wars couldn't handle this hearty meal and got sick and died from it. His exact cause of death is still unknown - some historians theorize he was assassinated, but in 1991 Taylor was dug up (at that point he was much more "Rough" than "Ready") to perform an autopsy and there was no poison found in his system. So it seems that even 140 years after his death, we still couldn't find anything interesting to say about this man.

Millard Fillmore hated just about everyone. He hated Democrats, he hated Abe Lincoln, he hated Indians, and despite his funny-sounding name, Millard Fillmore really, really hated immigrants. He was originally trained as a tailor, but the young Fillmore wasn't content spewing his hatred to men as he measured their crotches - no, Fillmore had big dreams, and he wanted all of America to know who he hated. He entered politics and was elected as vice president in 1848. When Zachary Taylor died, Fillmore took over and was able to share his racism and vitriol with the whole country. One of his most notorious achievements was signing the Fugitive Slave Act, a particularly nasty bill that said if a slave flees to a free state, the free state must then return the slave to his master. This pro-slavery stance divided the Whig party, and they decided not to back him for reelection. Later on, he became a prominent figure in the Know-Nothing Party, whose platform was essentially that they hated Irish people and… yeah, that's about it. In 1856, he ran for president as a Know-Nothing and lost, and for some reason this political party never quite caught on. It could be all of the seething hatred in their campaign speeches, the fact that they burned a church and tarred-and-feathered a priest, or simply that "Know Nothing" didn't have quite the catchy ring to it that "Democrat" or "Republican" have.

President William Howard Taft's single claim to fame is that he was America's fattest president. While he was in office, Taft was just an all-around mediocre guy: He had a moderate foreign policy, moderate domestic policies and a moderate record of accomplishment. The only thing not moderate about Taft was his appetite: Weighing in at over 300 pounds, Taft was notorious for burping and farting around the White House. During a particularly embarrassing episode, Taft got stuck in the White House bathtub and a bunch of aids had to rub down his giant nude body with butter in order to get him out. In spite of the 24-hour food service, Taft spent his four years in office completely miserable: He never wanted the job in the first place, having been bullied into it by his domineering wife. Once he rose to power, he hated the responsibility and was angered by the scrutiny he received from the press. He irritated many of his constituents, who believed he abandoned the Progressive platform he ran on, and especially displeased former president Theodore Roosevelt, who had promoted Taft in 1908 but then rebuked him and ran against him in 1912. Taft lost the next election, which was just fine with him. Though a failure as president, Taft did go on to be a successful Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, but then they don't make movies about Supreme Court justices, do they?

One account attributed to a Quaker (who, impious scholars have discovered, was not then at Valley Forge) that he had seen Washington lying on the ground there, tears flowing from his eyes as he called on God, has resulted in a church’s being built on the designated spot.

The truth is that Washington, like Franklin and Jefferson, was a deist. He avoided the word God, preferring Providence, which he called sometimes “he,” sometimes “she,” and sometimes “it.” This did not mean that he was not, according to his own lights, a highly religious man.

The evidence presents a very strong presumption that Washington was, although not impotent, sterile: Martha had had four children in quick succession by a previous husband, but she had none by Washington. This has not prevented his being supplied with many descendants.

The most famous is Hamilton: his idolaters, who have insisted (incorrectly) that Washington treated their hero as if he were an adopted son, have slipped over into postulating that Hamilton was in fact Washington’s son.

In truth, the future President, as a young man, had gone to the West Indies, where Hamilton was born, but at an altogether wrong date to have been the father. A surprising number of individuals in whose genealogy there is a potentially embarrassing gap have by second sight determined that the missing progenitor, the name suppressed for reasons of state, was Washington.

Perhaps the ultimate myth has been confided by two Southern blue-bloods, altogether independently of each other: Martha, the story goes, had revealed to one of their forebears that George Washington was a woman. A probable source for this can be ascertained: during the Revolution the Tory press teased the rebels by printing that Washington had been seen unawares wearing petticoats.

On April 7, 1831 President Andrew Jackson (1829-1837) accepted the resignation of his Secretary of War, John Eaton. Four days later he did the same with his Secretary of State, Martin Van Buren. By the end of the month all but one of Jackson’s cabinet members had resigned. The reasons behind the purge were a stew of political intrigue and conflicting loyalties, but they all came down to one woman: the Secretary of War’s wife, Margaret O’Neale Eaton.

Peggy O’Neale was devastatingly attractive to men, and she knew it. After growing up as the pet of everyone who stopped at her father’s Washington tavern, she married a feckless Navy purser named Timberlake, whose frequent absences gave her ample opportunity to maintain her skills in coquetry. As her conquests grew in number and status, the explosive mix of disapproval and jealousy that such a woman can inspire in others of her sex mounted in equal measure.

Some analysts, then and now, have suggested that the entire imbroglio was engineered by Van Buren, the Karl Rove of his day. Intentional or not, the mass resignation had the effect of solidifying Van Buren’s position as Jackson’s right-hand man. Old Hickory rewarded Old Kinderhook’s loyalty by choosing him to replace Calhoun as his running mate in the 1832 election. Four years later Van Buren was elected President himself.

Julia Gardiner was introduced to President John Tyler (1841-1845), the Virginia aristocrat and a recent widower. Although more than twice her age he fell madly in love with her. A tragedy in February, 1844, interrupted their courtship momentarily.

She and her father, a New York politician, had been invited, along with numerous dignitaries such as Dolley Madison, Thomas Hart Benton, and the President, aboard the new propeller-driven warship Princeton, built by John Ericsson, the designer of the Monitor in the Civil War. Salutes were being fired from the Peacemaker gun on the forward deck.

While Julia and President Tyler were enjoying a glass of champagne belowdecks there was a sudden terrible explosion above: the gun had burst asunder, killing her father and two members of Tyler's Cabinet, four months later, however, Julia Gardiner and President John Tyler were secretly married in New York.

The dour John Quincy Adams wrote in his diary: "Captain Tyler and his bride are the laughing stock of the city." He was fifty-four, she twenty-four. But President-to-be James Buchanan was envious: "The President is the most lucky man who ever lived. Both a belle and a fortune to crown his Presidential career."

An earlier Jacqueline Kennedy, she set a style of elegance in the White House, introducing French cooking, dancing, and the playing of Hail to the Chief when the President entered with his bride on his arm. One historian said she held court like an empress. Involving herself politically as well, she helped Tyler bring Texas into the Union with fervent speeches to senators and their wives.

After signing the order of annexation her husband handed her the pen, and she wore it as a charm around her neck the rest of her life. After Tyler's withdrawal from the election of 1844 they retired to his Virginia estate, where Julia mothered seven children and became a passionate Southerner. Although she never returned to Gardiners Island, her father's house in East Hampton was used as the summer White House by President Tyler and herself.

John Tyler was a guy who could never get any respect, which is less surprising when you learn that he grew up as a sickly boy with chronic diarrhea. As he got older, he ended up fighting with his fellow Democrats so much that he ditched them for the Whig party. He then went on to be the first vice president to assume the presidency after the death of a president, and as a result, no one felt he deserved the job, resulting in his being given the nickname "His Accidency". Even a White House livery driver made fun of him: When Tyler complained about having a secondhand carriage, the driver reminded him that he was only a "Secondhand President".

Tyler never helped his situation, though - he was elected to the vice presidency as a Whig, but when he became president, he abandoned the Whig platform and was promptly kicked out of the party. He turned back to the Democrats, but they didn't want him either. Tyler's response? Making like a kindergartner who couldn't get picked for soccer and throwing a temper tantrum, before vowing to start his own party. Even after promising to be, like, total BFF's with anyone who joined his new party, no one joined, so Tyler quickly gave up on that venture and remained an independent for the rest of his presidency. Toward the end of his life, Tyler earned himself a brand new nickname, "Traitor Tyler" - he was the only president to join the confederacy and even served in their government. John Tyler went his whole life without anybody really wanting him around.

Brian VanHooker. 5 Presidents Who Don't Deserve a Movie. Maxim [Print + Kindle] . December 2012.


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