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Tales of the CHIEF

Our nation’s executives receive a Presidents Day examination

For many Americans, Presidents Day is like any other and warrants no special activities, though many government and bank workers celebrate a paid day off.

One problem is the question of what – or whom – the nation is celebrating. All 44 presidents? The office of the president, as recommended in a 1951 effort to create the holiday? Or is it a combined holiday for the birthdays of George Washington (Feb. 22) and Abraham Lincoln (Feb. 12)?

Officially, Monday is Washington’s Birthday – though with its timing on the third Monday of February, it never falls on Washington’s birthday. Congress – in its desire to give federal workers three-day weekends – voted in 1968 to move Washington’s Birthday, along with Veterans Day, Memorial Day and Columbus Day, to Monday.

Congress never established a national holiday on Lincoln’s birthday, though many states observed it – and Illinois still does.

No single act or decision is credited with the widespread adoption of the Presidents Day title, and, as much as anything, seems to have been influenced by advertisers as much as any government official.

In celebration of Presidents Day, here are some interesting facts – as well as useless trivia – about the office and some of the men who have held it.

‘Tippecanoe’

No native Hoosier has been elected president, but William Henry Harrison (President No. 9, 1841) had major connections to Indiana.

He served under Gen. “Mad” Anthony Wayne, and in 1800 was named governor of the Indian Territory – land that now encompasses Indiana and Illinois. Harrison was known for going to battle with American Indians, then seizing their land, gaining 3 million acres with the Treaty of Fort Wayne. In 1811, he led the force that won the Battle of Tippecanoe, just north of Lafayette, a victory that gave him a nickname and cemented his reputation as an Indian fighter – though some questioned his skills as a general and just how much of a “victory” was won at Tippecanoe.

In the 1813 Battle of Thames, his forces killed the famed American Indian war hero Tecumseh.

In the 1840 election, Harrison was the subject of what many considered the most effective campaign song ever, “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too,” named for the candidate and his running mate, John Tyler (No. 10, 1841-45).

Harrison delivered the longest inaugural address in history, spending two hours in the snow and cold without a coat or hat.

He caught pneumonia and died a month after taking the oath – the first president to die in office as well as the shortest-tenured.

Westward ho!

Though Thomas Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase in 1803 marked the single largest expansion of the U.S., it was under James K. Polk (No. 11, 1845-49) that the nation expanded to the Pacific Ocean. Known as the first “dark horse” presidential nominee, Polk finally won the Democratic nomination on the ninth ballot, largely with the support of Martin Van Buren (No. 8, 1837-41). Polk’s views on expansion were clear, with the phrase “manifest destiny” used to describe expansion to the Pacific.

Polk worked out a deal with the British to claim much of the Oregon territory, land that later became the states of Oregon, Washington and Idaho. But he provoked a war with Mexico to settle not only the Texas boundary but to force Mexico to sell the area that became California and New Mexico to the U.S. While some historians admire Polk for his strong leadership and successful expansion, others believe his bullheaded diplomacy started a needless war, created tensions with Mexico that still exist and idly allowed an expansion of slavery.

Worst ever?

Some historians rank Polk’s successor, Zachary Taylor (No. 12, 1849-50), a former general, as among the worst presidents. Herbert Hoover (No. 31, 1929-33) is also near the bottom of the list. But the consensus is that Warren G. Harding (No. 29, 1921-23) is the worst of the worst.

His last-minute selection by GOP bosses to run for president gave birth to the phrase “smoke-filled room.” During his campaign, he infamously both supported and opposed U.S. entry into the League of Nations.

A summary of the presidents by U.S. News and World Report says that “Once in the White House, the 29th president busied himself with golf, poker, and his mistress, while appointees and cronies plundered the U.S. government in a variety of creative ways.”

His campaign slogan was “Less government in business and more business in government.” He followed through by helping Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon get tax cuts for the rich, halting antitrust enforcement and opposing unions. Though not accused of being personally connected, his administration was known for the Teapot Dome affair, an oil-leasing and bribery scam that was the worst presidential scandal until Watergate.

On a return journey from Alaska, Harding fell ill with food poisoning and soon died of a heart attack.

Accidental veep?

People who follow politics have sometimes expressed a combination of amusement and amazement at vice presidential choices – think Dan Quayle in 1988. But John Kennedy’s choice of Lyndon B. Johnson was one for the books – and, indeed, it has been described in several.

Johnson (No. 36, 1963-69) was known for a War on Poverty, successful advances for civil rights – and a doomed Vietnam policy that ultimately caused him not to seek re-election in 1968. Johnson, of course, assumed the presidency in 1963 upon the death of Kennedy and was elected outright in 1964. Whether he really belonged on the Kennedy ticket in the 1960 election, though, is the subject of debate.

Outspoken and verbally brutal to his political enemies, Johnson had no love lost for Kennedy – his main rival for the Democratic nomination. Many on Kennedy’s team detested Johnson. But some thought he would be vital to winning the much-needed southern vote, which Democrats could no longer take for granted. Considering Kennedy’s status as the first Catholic candidate for president, some advisers thought an older, southern Protestant – like Johnson – was essential.

In any event, the Kennedy team agreed they couldn’t afford to anger Johnson and, after checking through back channels, figured he didn’t want the spot. The plan was to politely offer Johnson the No. 2 slot then graciously accept his refusal.

But Johnson accepted.

Later, Robert Kennedy – the candidate’s brother and future attorney general – went to Johnson, asking him to give up the vice presidential spot to become chairman of the Democratic National Committee. According to Arthur Schlesinger’s extensive biography of Robert Kennedy, Johnson “just shook and tears came into his eyes and he said, ‘I want to be vice president,’ ” and the Kennedys relented.

Years later, columnist Carl Rowan, who served in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, related a story in which Johnson cried in Rowan’s presence, then turned to him and said “a man ain’t worth a damn if he can’t cry at the right time.”

In his exhaustive biography of Johnson, however, author Robert Caro disputes the Schlesinger account and writes that John Kennedy clearly wanted and needed Johnson to win.

More tidbits

In, out, in: Grover Cleveland has the distinction of being the only president to lose a re-election attempt but come back four years later and win, making him both the 22nd (1885-89) and 24th (1893-97) president. He received credit for his honesty after answering claims that he fathered a child out of wedlock by saying it might be true. After serving two years, the bachelor married a 21-year-old woman – 28 years his junior – and they became the only president and first lady to marry at the White House.

Though Cleveland lost the 1888 Electoral College, he had more popular votes.

Civil service: Cleveland’s predecessor was Chester Arthur (No. 21, 1881-85), who served about six months as vice president before being elevated following the assassination of James Garfield (No. 20, 1881). Though he rose through New York’s Republican political machine, Arthur surprisingly became a proponent for fair civil service and against patronage. Known as “The Gentleman Boss,” he directed a major refurbishing of the White House.

Left-wing radical: After losing to John Kennedy in 1960, Richard Nixon (No. 37, 1969-74) came back to win in 1968. Democrats loathed him, his Vietnam policy was hated and he will forever be remembered as the only president who was forced to resign because of scandal. Though he was a scorn to Democrats, he could probably never be elected by the Republicans of today. Nixon started the EPA and OSHA. He instituted wage and price controls. He greatly expanded welfare and proposed – but didn’t win – a plan to offer a guaranteed annual income to Americans through a “negative income tax.”

The best of the best: With little doubt, the nation’s three best presidents were Abraham Lincoln (No. 16, 1861-65), Franklin D. Roosevelt (No. 32, 1933-45) and George Washington (No. 1, 1789-97): Lincoln for saving a union the Civil War could well have destroyed and for abolishing slavery; Roosevelt for guiding the nation out of the Great Depression and through World War II; and Washington for setting the tone for the presidency, notably avoiding power grabs that could have made the office more of a monarchy.

Tracy Warner, editorial page editor, has worked at The Journal Gazette since 1981. He can be reached at 461-8113 or by email, twarner@jg.net.

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