Sunday, July 29, 2018

366. Weird Facts about the U.S. Presidents

IT'S OUT: Fascinating New Yorkers was released on July 26 and is available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.  Excellent  reviews so far; see below.

The e-book version will be released in about a week and be available briefly at a bargain price. To get word of this, as well as giveaways and other news, sign up using the form in the sidebar on the right.  

For my other books, see BROWDERBOOKS following the post below.

Fascinating NYers eimage.jpg

Short biographical sketches of colorful people who lived or died in New York.  A cardinal who led a double life, a serial killer, a baroness with a tomato-can bra, and a film star whose funeral caused an all-day riot.  Plus Andy Warhol, Boss Tweed, J. P. Morgan and his purple nose, Al Sharpton, Ayn Rand, and Polly Adler, Queen of Tarts.


"Fascinating New Yorkers by Clifford Browder was like sitting down with a dear friend and catching up on the latest gossip and stories. Written with a flair to keep the reader turning the pages, I couldn't stop reading it and thinking about the subjects of each New Yorker. I love NYC and this book just added to the list of reasons why, a must read for those who love NYC and the people who have lived there."  Five-star NetGalley review by Patty Ramirez, librarian.

"Unputdownable."  Five-star review by Dipali Sen, retired librarian.

"I felt like I was gossiping with a friend when reading this, as the author wrote about New Yorkers who are unique in one way or another. I am hoping for another book featuring more New Yorkers, as I couldn't put this down and read it in one sitting!" Five-star NetGalley review by Cristie Underwood.  

Published July 26.  Signed copies are available from the author (i.e., me) for $20.00 (plus postage, if needed), but only three remain.  


         I’ve promised weird presidential facts, but let’s start with some that aren’t particularly weird.  Who are the most popular U.S. presidents of all time?  According to a 2014 poll of 162 members of the American Political Science Association’s Presidents & Executive Politics section, the top ten are as follows:

1.    Abraham Lincoln (1861-1865)
2.    George Washington (1789-1797)
3.    Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1933-1945)
4.    Theodore (Teddy) Roosevelt (1901-1909)
5.    Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809)
6.    Harry Truman (1945-1953)
7.    Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953-1961)
8.    Bill Clinton (1993-2001)
9.    Andrew Jackson (1829-1837)
10. Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921)

This was a 2014 poll of experts, so the Donald was not included.  Obama was, but I think it too soon to judge him objectively. 

         My comment: regarding the top three, no criticism.  Lincoln held the country together at the time of its greatest crisis, and Washington for the most part stayed out of politics, so as to give the new nation a unifying figure.  As for Roosevelt, his administration saw the beginning of Social Security and other vital New Deal legislation, and he saw us through World War II.  I say this even though my father, a staunch Republican, raged incessantly against him and his four terms, insisting that polio had left the man slightly demented, as witnessed by the “Tinker Toys” – small objects he had accumulated over the years -- visible on his presidential desk.

File:Franklin Delano Roosevelt and smiling staff..JPG
FDR, just after signing the declaration of war on Japan.  Why he's smiling I can't .imagine.
Tinker Toys in the foreground.

         And who should be added to the presidential likenesses on Mount Rushmore, joining Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson, and Teddy, the bumptious Roosevelt?  Two-thirds of the scholars queried said Franklin Delano Roosevelt. 

Is there room for FDR?

         Teddy Roosevelt (#4) is controversial, since he was an avowed imperialist and something of a bully (“Speak softly but carry a big stick”), and a racist as well, believing in the superiority of the white race.  On the other hand, after charging noisily up San Juan Hill in the Spanish-American War, as president he founded our national park system and busted a lot of trusts.  Still, I have a personal gripe against him.  Lamenting the fact that his younger son was a bookworm and not at all sports-minded, my father spoke glowingly of Teddy and how going out West and working there in the rough had made a man of him.  Feeling no need to go out West or even, here in the sissified East, to throw a football, I nursed an ardent desire to get a photo of Teddy, so I could hurl darts into his toothy grin.

File:Theodore Roosevelt laughing.jpg
Here is Teddy, my dreamed-of target.

         I consider Bill Clinton (#8) too recent to be judged impartially, and acknowledge that Andrew Jackson (#9) has become controversial.  He squelched South Carolina’s first attempt to secede, but was himself a slave owner and ordered the removal of all native peoples from their ancestral lands to barren reservations in the West.  (Where, fortunately, some of them were located on land where oil was later discovered, to their sudden enrichment.)

         And who did the scholars rate as the five worst presidents?  James Buchanan topped the list.

1.    James Buchanan (1857-1861)
2.    Warren G. Harding (1921-1923)
3.    Andrew Johnson (1865-1869)
4.    Franklin Pierce (1853-1857)
5.    William Henry Harrison (1841)

         Buchanan rates #1 because, with Southern secession and the Civil  War looming, he did nothing to prevent the catastrophe.  Agreed, he only hoped to get out of office before it happened.  But personally, I doubt if he or anyone could have prevented it.

File:James Buchanan.jpg
Our worst president?  I don't think so.  Buchanan did no good, but little harm.

         Harding was a handsome man who, elected following World War I, preached “back to normalcy,” thus invented a noun that, because of its provenance, I refuse to use.  (What’s wrong with “normality”?)  His wife remarked memorably, “We’re just folks.”  He was a good party man of no particular talent, interesting only because of his hanky-panky with a young woman who later told the world.  More to the point, he was an honest man surrounded by crooks; because of the Teapot Dome scandal, two of his cabinet went to prison.

File:Warren G Harding-Harris & Ewing.jpg
Warren G. Harding, looking fearfully thoughtful.

         Johnson was Lincoln’s successor, and that was a tough act to follow.  He wasn’t up to it, and furthermore imbibed a bit too freely, but he had some mean characters to deal with, senators determined to make the defeated South pay for its disloyalty.  A nasty time, all in all.

         Pierce is one of my favorite presidents because he accomplished so little that one hardly remembers him.  Uncontroversial, because in his in short term he did almost nothing at all.  To date, the only Vermonter to make it to the White House, unless you include Vermont-born Calvin Coolidge, who pursued his political career in Massachusetts.  

File:Franklin Pierce.jpg
Franklin Pierce.  Looking Napoleonic or just scratching?

         Finally, I argue that William Henry Harrison doesn’t merit this rating, since he caught a chill at his inauguration and a month later died of pneumonia.  He simply wasn’t in office long enough (all of 31 days) to do anything at all.

         To my surprise, the list does not include a president whom I have always rated at or near the bottom: Ulysses S. Grant, who, like Harding, was personally honest but surrounded by crooks.  Good generals don't always make good presidents.

         Who are the three most overrated presidents?  According to the scholars:

1.    John F. Kennedy (1961-1963)
2.    Ronald Reagan (1981-1989)
3.    Andrew Jackson (1829-1837)

Kennedy is probably included because of the enduring (and debatable) Kennedy mystique.  How one feels about Reagan depends on your politics.  And Jackson is included for reasons mentioned above.

         And the most underrated?

1.    Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953-1961)
2.    George H.W. Bush (1989-1993)
3.    Harry Truman (1945-1953)

Eisenhower and Papa Bush I’m not sure about, but certainly Harry Truman.  As FDR’s successor he too had a tough act to follow, but he grew in stature and accomplished a lot as the nation transitioned from postwar euphoria to the onset of the Cold War.  A feisty little guy and quite a scrapper, he astonished everyone by winning the 1948 election, trouncing Thomas Dewey, the Republican.  Overconfident, Dewey thought he could win by making vague, glowing statements and nothing more.  Meanwhile Truman barnstormed around the country by rail, speaking from an observation car and convincing ordinary people that he was one of them, which he was.  The Republican Chicago Tribune, which I grew up reading, announced Dewey's victory ... prematurely, and Truman (on the left below) made the most of it.

File:Dewey Defeats Truman (AN-95-187) resized.jpg

I can't let go of this guy without including another famous photo of him as vice president in 1945.  On top of the piano?  Lauren Bacall.


         These rankings are relative and can change from year to year,  Here are the top 10 as rated by 100 U.S. historians and biographers in a C-SPAN survey in July 2018: 

1.    Abraham Lincoln
2.    George Washington
3.    Franklin Delano Roosevelt
4.    Theodore Roosevelt
5.    Dwight D. Eisenhower
6.    Harry Truman
7.    Thomas Jefferson
8.    John F. Kennedy
9.    Ronald Reagan
10. Lyndon B. Johnson

The survey included the top 20, with Barack Obama coming in at #12, and Bill Clinton, as yet untroubled by the #Me Too Movement, at #15.  Andrew Jackson is demoted to #18.

         These surveys targeted scholars immersed in presidential lore.  Why not ordinary citizens, you might ask.  Their opinions would surely differ from the scholars’, but they could hardly be expected to appraise such distant political nonentities as John Tyler or Millard Fillmore or Chester Alan Arthur.  So to include the full range of chief executives, it’s best to stick with the experts.

         And now for Weird Facts 1 (another set will follow).  History buffs know that Harry Truman had once worked as a haberdasher, and that Ronald Reagan had been an actor in Hollywood films, but what about these occupations?  Which presidents held them before reaching the White House?  (Answers below.)

1.    Licensed bar tender.
2.    Apprentice tailor.
3.    Mule driver.
4.    Hangman.
5.    Toy maker (specifically, doll carriages).
6.    Shoe shiner and goat herder.
7.    Chicken plucker and carnival gaming booth.
8.    Lifeguard.
9.    Grocer and comic book salesman.

(Source note: For Weird Facts 1 I am indebted to an online article, “The 17 weirdest jobs of US presidents,” by Aine Cain, dated February 19, 2018.)

Answers to Weird Facts 1:

1.    Abraham Lincoln.  He and a partner ran a store and bar in New Salem, Illinois.
2.    Andrew Johnson.  In his teens worked for his mother in this capacity.
3.    James Garfield.  As an Ohio farm boy he drove the mules hauling a cousin’s Erie Canal boat.
4.    Grover Cleveland.  As sheriff of Erie County, New York, he personally hanged two criminals, rather than delegating the task to someone else.
5.    Calvin Coolidge.  In high school he had a weekend job making toys for a local toy company.
6.    Lyndon B. Johnson.  At age 9 he shined shoes during summer vacation and later worked as a goat herder on an uncle’s farm.
7.    Richard Nixon.  He plucked and dressed chickens for a local butcher while visiting family in Arizona, and later worked a “Wheel of Fortune” gaming booth at a carnival.
8.    Ronald Reagan.  For seven summers he had a summer job as lifeguard at Rock River, near Dixon, Illinois.  In those seven years he saved 77 people from the river’s swift current.
9.    Bill Clinton.  At age 13 he worked for a grocer in Arkansas, and persuaded his boss to let him sell comic books, too, and so raked in an extra $100.

         And now for Weird Facts 2, which I have accumulated over the years from sources too varied and remote for me to recall.  See if you can identify these presidents.  (Again, answers below.)
1.    Being broad of beam, he got stuck in the White House bathtub.
2.    When his term ended, he refused to leave the White House until the staff found his missing galosh.
3.    His wife smoked a clay pipe in the White House.
4.    As president elect, his life was thought to be in danger in Baltimore, while en route to Washington, so they snuck him through Baltimore at night.
5.    Accused of having fathered an illegitimate child, during his election he was taunted by the chant “Ma!  Ma!  Where’s my pa? / Gone to the White House, ha, ha, ha!”
6.    His inaugural reception at the White House turned into a drunken brawl. 
7.    As a senator he had voted for Prohibition, but once it went into effect, he kept the White House well stocked with liquor.

8.    The first language he spoke was not English.

File:Martin Van Buren.jpg
For #8, does this help?  Probably not.

         Answers to Weird Facts 2:

1.    William Howard Taft, who weighed 350 pounds.  Fortunately they got him loose, so he could go on post-presidentially to become Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.  The story, however, has been challenged.
2.    Calvin Coolidge, who was notoriously frugal.
3.    Andrew Jackson, whose backwoodsy wife scandalized Washington society.  Whether they were even properly married was questioned.
4.    Abraham Lincoln.  In February 1861 the Pinkerton detective agency learned of a Secessionist plot to assassinate him in Baltimore, where he would change trains while on his way to Washington.  So they had him secretly change trains in Baltimore in the middle of the night and so proceed on to the capital.
5.    Grover Cleveland.  As the Democratic mayor of Buffalo and governor of New York, he had implemented reforms and earned the name Grover the Good.  But during the presidential election of 1884, when he was the Democratic candidate, it came out that he had fathered an illegitimate child with a widowed seamstress, a charge he did not deny, while insisting that he had helped the mother financially.  Despite the Republican press’s taunting chant, he won the election in a close race, and the Democrats then gleefully recited the chant back at the Republicans.  But today Cleveland’s account of the affair has been questioned; perhaps  his conduct was less than honorable after all.
6.    Andrew Jackson, again.  His White House reception for the public on March 4, 1829, was thronged by a lot of ill-mannered supporters from the West who guzzled liquor and destroyed furniture and china, causing their host to flee through a back door or a window.  But what actually happened may have been exaggerated by Washington society and his political enemies, who feared rule by the rabble.
7.    Warren G. Harding. Technically he wasn’t breaking the law, since possessing and consuming alcohol was not illegal, just producing, importing, transporting, or selling it.  But how did he get the stuff?  Through an acquaintance who had a permit allowing him to obtain it for medical purposes; the acquaintance then passed it on to Harding.  Were the authorities aware of this?  Maybe, maybe not.  Maybe they chose not to notice.

8.    Martin Van Buren.  He was born to a family of Dutch-speaking Dutch Americans in Kinderhook, New York, and learned English in school.  The only president for whom English was a second language.

         I must confess that Calvin Coolidge has a warm place in my heart.  “The business of America is business,” he famously announced.  A Vermonter who pursued a political career in Massachusetts, he was the epitome of the tight-lipped New Englander and became known as Silent Cal.  A woman seated next to him at a dinner once addressed him, “Mr. Coolidge, you’re such a reticent man.  I’ve bet a friend five dollars that I can make you say more than two words.”  Replied Coolidge, “You lose.”  He may have cultivated this image deliberately, since he told an acquaintance that the American people wanted a “solemn ass” as president, and he would do his best to be one.  In 1933, when humorist Dorothy Parker was told that he had died, she reportedly said, “How can you tell?”  They don’t make ‘em like that anymore.

File:Calvin Coolidge receiving statue of Boy Scout outside the White House 1927.jpg
President Coolidge, being presented with a statue of a Boy Scout.  Fifteen hundred Scouts made a annual visit to the White House to meet the president.

Coming soon: Maybe "Who Killed Carlo Tresca?"  
Never heard of him? Neither had I until recently.  But the cast of suspects is astonishing.  Few victims could lay claim to such a roster of killers.


All books are available online as indicated, or from the author.

1.  No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World (Mill City Press, 2015).  Winner of the Tenth Annual National Indie Excellence Award for Regional Non-Fiction; first place in the Travel category of the 2015-2016 Reader Views Literary Awards; and Honorable Mention in the Culture category of the Eric Hoffer Book Awards for 2016.  All about anything and everything New York: alcoholics, abortionists, greenmarkets, Occupy Wall Street, the Gay Pride Parade, my mugging in Central Park, peyote visions, and an artist who made art of a blackened human toe.  In her Reader Views review, Sheri Hoyte called it "a delightful treasure chest full of short stories about New York City."

If you love the city (or hate it), this may be the book for you.  An award winner, it sold well at BookCon 2017 and 2018.


"If you want wonderful inside tales about New York, this is the book for you.  Cliff Browder has a way with his writing that makes the city I lived in for 40 plus years come alive in a new and delightful way. A refreshing view on NYC that will not disappoint."  Five-star Amazon customer review by Bill L.

Available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

2.  Bill Hope: His Story (Anaphora Literary Press, 2017), the second novel in the Metropolis series.  New York City, 1870s: From his cell in the gloomy prison known as the Tombs, young Bill Hope spills out in a torrent of words the story of his career as a pickpocket and shoplifter; his brutal treatment at Sing Sing and escape from another prison in a coffin; his forays into brownstones and polite society; and his sojourn among the “loonies” in a madhouse, from which he emerges to face betrayal and death threats, and possible involvement in a murder.  Driving him throughout is a fierce desire for better, a persistent and undying hope.

For readers who like historical fiction and a fast-moving story.


"A real yarn of a story about a lovable pickpocket who gets into trouble and has a great adventure.  A must read."  Five-star Amazon customer review by nicole w brown.

"This was a fun book.  The main character seemed like a cross between Huck Finn and a Charles Dickens character.  I would recommend this."  Four-star LibraryThing review by stephvin.

Available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

3.  Dark Knowledge (Anaphora Literary Press, 2018), the third novel in the Metropolis series.  Adult and young adult.  A fast-moving historical novel about New York City and the slave trade, with the sights and sounds and smells of the waterfront. 

Browder - Cover - 9781681143675-Perfect - 2
The back cover summary:

New York City, late 1860s.  When young Chris Harmony learns that members of his family may have been involved in the illegal pre-Civil War slave trade, taking slaves from Africa to Cuba, he is appalled.  Determined to learn the truth, he begins an investigation that takes him into a dingy waterfront saloon, musty old maritime records that yield startling secrets, and elegant brownstone parlors that may have been furnished by the trade.  Since those once involved dread exposure, he meets denials and evasions, then threats, and a key witness is murdered.  Chris has vivid fantasies of the suffering slaves on the ships and their savage revolts.  How could seemingly respectable people be involved in so abhorrent a trade, and how did they avoid exposure?  And what price must Chris pay to learn the painful truth and proclaim it?

Early reviews

"A lively and entertaining tale.  The writing styles, plot, pace and character development were excellent."  Four-star LibraryThing early review by BridgitDavis.

"At first the plot ... seemed a bit contrived, but I was soon swept up in the tale."  Four-star LibraryThing early review by snash.

"I am glad that I have read this book as it goes into great detail and the presentation is amazing.  The Author obviously knows his stuff."  Four-star LibraryThing early review by Moiser20.

New release; available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

4.  The Pleasuring of Men (Gival Press, 2011), the first novel in the Metropolis series, tells the story of a respectably raised young man who chooses to become a male prostitute in late 1860s New York and falls in love with his most difficult client.

What was the gay scene like in nineteenth-century New York?   Gay romance, if you like, but no porn (I don't do porn).  Women have read it and reviewed it.  (The cover illustration doesn't hurt.)


"At times amusing, gritty, heartfelt and a little sexy -- this would make a great summer read."  Four-star Amazon customer review by BobW.

"Really more of a fantasy of a 19th century gay life than any kind of historical representation of the same."  Three-star Goodreads review by Rachel.

"The detail Browder brings to this glimpse into history is only equaled by his writing of credible and interesting characters.  Highly recommended."  Five-star Goodreads review by Nan Hawthorne.

Available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

©   2018   Clifford Browder