by Dean Fernandez

Attached to this blog post was supposed to be a PDF-scanned photocopy of the front page of the ‘presidents’ section of the 1991 edition of World Book Encyclopedia. You know the one. The black and white one where Presidents George Washington to (then) George H.W. Bush were displayed, 1 through 41, portrait-style and impressive. Such portraiture is not, in the end, attached, because I remembered that I gave away my World Book set a couple of years ago to a friend of a friend’s kid who, my parents told me, needed it more than I did. Indeed, if that friend of a friend’s kid did not, in 2007, have the internet and easy access to Wikipedia then I guess they are right. Instead, what is attached is a JPEG image of something similar to the one in my erstwhile World Book set.
Look at it carefully. This version includes Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush, and is somewhat out of date because our boy, Barack Obama, is yet to be included. But that is immaterial. I am trying to be nostalgic here, and this image is close enough to the Cold War-era one I had as a kid. Look at the distinction on these presidents’ faces and think about how powerful they were. Looking at them in chronological order is like examining the ringed layers in an old Sequioa tree trunk. These guys made history!
There are the almost comical paintings of the first 7 presidents up to Andrew Jackson. Number 8, I believe, is the first portrait photograph of Martin Van Buren. For your information, he was not a great president. None of the presidents from him to #15, James Buchanan, were. Then there is #16, President Lincoln, The Great Emancipator. As a kid I knew from The Simpsons that Honest Abe was a great and benevolent Civil War-era president, but only recently when I read Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book, Team of Rivals did I truly appreciate how great he was. Read it. Please. So we have something to talk about.
Since I’ve begun pimping books, what made this presidential obsession worse was Louis Phillips’ Ask Me Anything About the Presidents, a book I inherited from my grandmother, who was an American history teacher. It is an interesting and funny book peppered with little-known factoids about the presidents. Going back to our list again, did you know that #17, Andrew Johnson, was a drunk? And that #18, Ulysses S. Grant’s favourite snack was pickles soaked in vinegar? No. 19 Rutherford B. Hayes was apparently an ambidextrous impresario who could write simultaneously in English in one hand, and Hebrew in the other. You should see the cartoon illustration of Hayes doing just that in Louis’ book. I still chuckle when I think about it.
You cannot see it in this version, but in my 1991 World Book, #22 and #24, Grover Cleveland, the only president ever to serve two non-consecutive terms, was actually reproduced twice, sandwiching #23, Benjamin Harrison. Benjamin Harrison was the grandson of #9, William Henry Harrison, the one who died in office after a month because he chose not to wear an overcoat or top hat while delivering his 2-hour inaugural address, dying of pneumonia. Lesson to future presidents: don’t be cocky. Keep your addresses short.
Who was the fattest president? No. 27, William Howard Taft; who was also the only president to later serve as Chief Justice of the United States, a job he much preferred even while he was president. Unlike some of us, he had choices. And look! There is “Silent Cal” – #30 Calvin Coolidge – who was so nicknamed because he was so reticent that at a party once two ladies struck up a bet to see if they could get more than two words out of him. President Coolidge, up to the challenge, responded by saying, “You lose.” If you didn’t like his laissez-faire economics during the Gilded Age, you must at least admire the efficiency of his smugness here.
People often ask me why I like the United States so much and I respond almost too glibly by saying, “Why wouldn’t I?” But seriously, anyone who likes history and appreciates how history can be shaped by anyone if they work hard enough knows that there is glory in it. Ask #32, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who is the longest-serving president and who was the only president elected 4 times. He was a silver spoon-fed child of the New York aristocracy who grew up a Democrat because he knew that the Depression required swift governmental action to help the poor and the suffering. He also did all of this in a wheelchair, and if that doesn’t bespeak a yearning for greatness, then you probably don’t know your American history.
If you ask me who my favourite president is, I would say that it was #33, Harry Truman, because HBO got in early and made the first ever biopic on a president I ever saw, which obviously made an imprint. A close second is #35, John F. Kennedy, because more than most presidents, he was urbane and witty and knew how to put words together, or at least hire people who knew how to put words together (shoutout to Ted Sorensen); and if you set aside his salacious character flaws, he and his family deserve massive props for making public service cool.
I will skip a few and end with #39, Jimmy Carter. I am currently in the process of revising history to resurrect his reputation. I am still researching on it, and do not quite have a complete grasp on his presidency, but at the moment I’ve got Jimmy Carter’s back. As a believer in human rights, he ‘practiced what he preached’ about US democracy, helping to bring peace to parts of the Middle East and Latin America, and upheld the view that if Americans were for freedom within its own shores and among its own people, they should be for freedom everywhere. As an Australian student of the United States at the United States Studies Centre, we can only hope that all presidents share this view.

All USSSoc blog posts reflect the opinions of the writer, and are not reflective of the views of the USSSoc.