Each month, we pitch a new question to our staff and readers. If you have a question you’d like us to answer, email it to us. This month we asked: Who is your favorite President of the United States?
My favorite president is the guy on the 100-dollar bill. I don’t know who it is. I haven’t actually seen a 100-dollar bill up close. I just feel like, damn, whoever you are, if you’re on the 100-dollar bill, you must have been the top president of all time, straight up. Other countries probably started wars with the U.S. just so they could have his attention. People were psyched about taxes because they wanted to give him their money anyway. Whenever he started talking about the GNP people were like “Uh-huh, uh-huh,” but the whole time they were thinking about kissing him. He and his super-swanky wife threw the most insane parties at the White House. What would you bring to a party held by such an awesome president, though? I would feel weird about trying to spend a 100-dollar bill at the grocery store. Can you imagine? Someday.
Except to say that Progressives are generally, well, progressive, I won’t get into the politics of our presidents. Also, it’s hard to comment on those presidents’ policies I was not alive to witness, or old enough to have any clue what was significant about them. That being said, I came across an article not too long ago that contained this snippet of a letter from John Adams to his wife Abigail: “Dear Miss Saucy, I hereby order you to give me as many kisses and as many hours of your company as I shall please to demand, and charge them to my account.”
Sadly, both silliness and sweetness are wonderful human qualities that are often demonstrably lacking in our presidents, but John Adams clearly had both in spades. Until something sillier surfaces, John Adams is hereby my favorite.
I grew up in Nashville, which meant annual school field trips to the Hermitage, home of our nation’s seventh president, Andrew Jackson. Like all our leaders of that time, his greatness was complicated: He’d risen up from poverty and illiteracy to become a (deserved) military hero and the head of state, yet he also supported the institution of slavery and was responsible for the Indian Removal Act, or Trail of Tears. In many ways he was the modern-day Tea Party’s wet dream: the relentless champion of the common man (as long as he was white, and a he) and limited government, the tireless opponent of deficit spending and sociopolitical elitism. He invited the public to all White House parties, including a reception honoring Washington’s birthday, at which was served a 1,400-pound wheel of cheese.
This populist gesture is memorialized in “Big Block of Cheese Day,” when my favorite president’s staffers set aside a day to meet with the crackpots and little people who would not have ordinarily had such access to twigs so high on the executive branch. Yes, that president is the fictional Josiah Bartlett of The West Wing, but so what? I totally would have voted for him.
It’s a three-way tie for me: Lincoln, because even after his mother died of the “milk sick” (she drank the milk of a cow that ate poisonous plants), he went on to become the only president to be awarded a patent; T.R., because he survived the flesh-eating bacterial infection he got while charting a previously unmapped tributary of the Amazon; and Wilson, because he was on the $100,000 bill. Damn!
As a 24-year-old Canadian, my only real experience with American presidents is limited to 42, 43, and 44. It comes down to Obama. It’s really his award to lose. I mean, he hasn’t really done much in his first year—mostly just tried to clean up Bush’s mess. It’s almost as if Obama is the morning maid at Yale University all over again, cleaning up the beer cans, pizza boxes, and prostitutes from Bush’s dorm room after a giant, eight-year party. Oh, and he defeated a Vietnam War veteran who had a celebrity (Tina Fey) as his running mate. Impressive. For being brave enough to sit in that chair after eight years of that, I believe Obama not only deserves the Nobel Peace Prize, but the Congressional Medal of Honor and the Victoria Cross—the highest military honor Canada has to offer. It’s OK; we’ll let you have it. You just have to ask.
I don’t have a favorite president, but I do have a least favorite: Ulysses S. Grant. Sure he was a Union general who helped lead the North to victory in the Civil War. Sure he served two terms during which he helped the South rebuild and championed Civil Rights laws. Sure. Whatever. I still don’t like him. Why? Because he made one of my distant relatives out to be a loser.
That relative is Horace Greeley—editor of the New York Tribune, former presidential candidate, and my distant uncle (I think). Greeley campaigned against Grant during the bid for his second term and lost in a huge landslide despite the support of two parties—the Democrats and the Liberal Republicans. In hindsight, though, it was probably a good thing Greeley lost, seeing as he died before the electoral votes were even cast. But he still had time to leave behind an important legacy that includes the phrase “Go west, young man,” the town of Greeley, Colo., and a model for a rockin’ neck beard.
Lauren Frey Daisley
You have to hand it to Grover Cleveland. In the 1888 election, he lost his bid for a second term as president (familiar story: the most popular votes, not enough electoral votes), so he ran again and took back his place in the Oval Office four years later. He’s the only president to have ever done that. It shows some real chutzpah. He’s also the only president to marry while serving a term in the White House, which means he was elected while single. It’s hard to imagine that happening today, though there seems to be no correlation between being married and being well suited to the presidency (see Nixon, Richard).
James A. Garfield discovered an original proof of the Pythagorean theorem. He was a professor of classical Greek before he took to the law. His political career does not somehow cancel those attainments: Garfield was a badass like no other U.S. president.
While I am fond of William Howard Taft, for being the only president—to our (collective) knowledge—to get stuck in a White House bathtub, and of James Madison, mainly because of Dolly, probably my favorite president is Martin Van Buren. Why? Because he is the first—and so far, the only—president who spoke English as a second language, and the first to be born a U.S. citizen; he came from a poor family and had to drop out of high school to work—and later, as a contracts lawyer in New York, he broke up huge land trusts, allowing poor and middle-class people to own land in the state; despite his ruling against the slaves on the Amistad, he later voted against admitting further slaveholding states into the Union because of the wholehearted anti-slavery views he adopted; he was pals with a young Abraham Lincoln, and a staunch supporter of President Lincoln’s military action against the secessionist South; he founded the modern Democratic party and, arguably, the Republican party; he went by “Matty;” despite being a one-term president defeated by that dirty lie of a campaign slogan, “Tippecanoe and Tyler too,” upon his return to New York City on March 23, 1841, he was met by “a disgusting assemblage of the unwashed democracy” (George Templeton Strong), who cheered him in the rain. Friend to the poor and small; enemy of the rich, over-privileged, slave-owning jerks; wearer of hardcore sideburns: this was Martin Van Buren, our eighth president. (I learned these facts from Ted Widmer’s excellent presentation at the Gilder Lehrman Institute.
Franklin Pierce! John Tyler! Warren G. Harding! Benjamin Harrison! Who? Mr. President, that’s who. Shout-out to those poor souls that are forgotten, set astray, constantly missing from our mental lists. That’s right, there was a Benjamin Harrison. You heard me.
My favorite president has to be kind of a dick; therefore, I chose Harry S. Truman, whose most popular photograph is of him smiling like a dick while holding up the Nov. 3, 1948, cover of the Chicago Tribune, which erroneously announced that he was defeated by Thomas Dewey. Once elected, Truman established and served on the commission to create what became the 22nd Amendment, which limited the number of times presidents could be elected. The amendment would have disqualified Truman from running in 1952 had he not added a dick-grandfather clause to it, excluding the current president (himself). Truman was the first dick to persuade the United Nations to engage in armed conflict. He asked the U.N. to intervene in Korea when he found out that the U.S. did not have enough warships to blockade the peninsula after he ordered the navy to do so. Dicks never give up on elections, constitutional amendments, or war—and neither did Mr. Truman.
The subject of balladry, cheap impression, opera, film, and cartoon, pop culture has transformed Richard Nixon into a dream character—in every sense. George Washington may be more admirable, but he’ll never be as dramatically fascinating. Therefore my vote for best prez goes to Richard Nixon as played by Frank Langella. His Nixon is our overbearing daddy. He’s our psychic drain. A yutz on the surface, with monsters under that ill-fitting smile. He bores us so much that we don’t realize he’s undermining our confidence until we’re a wreck at his feet. His is the face we’ve drawn in blood on the wall when the cops find us. Pedant, demon, a touch of tragic hero—Langella makes all those squirmy facets shine, owning the screen like he’s Uri Geller and we but spoons. He’s irresistible. He’s more Nixon than Nixon.
I have great affection for the eccentric footnote presidents, from Chester A. Arthur’s extravagant dress to Benjamin Harrison’s fear of electricity. But if I have to pick a meaningful favorite, it’s got to be non-footnote Woodrow Wilson. The only president with a Ph.D. and one of the few with a Nobel Prize, Wilson was a gentleman idealist. Pro-labor and pro-women, he urged Congress to pass the Clayton Anti-Trust Act (guaranteeing labor rights) and the Nineteenth Amendment, which was ratified under his watch. Dedicated to promoting education, he passed (among others) the Smith – Lever Act, which extended education opportunities at land-grant universities and fostered research-based knowledge. He signed the legislation to create Mother’s Day. But mostly, he tried to veto Prohibition and he’s a dead ringer for Frances McDormand.