Separating fact from fiction can be challenging when examining the lives of historical leaders — especially American presidents, who have, well, history on their side. After all, school children are taught all about presidential exploits and achievements, instilling national pride at an early age. However, as John Adams famously once said, “Facts can be stubborn things.”
Oddly, for a country founded on the principles of liberty and free speech, the United States has a long, troubled relationship with the truth. From the cooked up “yellow journalism” that led to the Spanish-American War or claims of smoking weed but not inhaling (seriously, Bill?) and repeated cries of “fake news,” words can be cheaper than a dented can of beans in the discount bin.
Additionally, it can’t be overstated that 12 American presidents owned slaves. Twelve. So regardless of how noble the words “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” might look on paper, our founding fathers clearly didn’t mean all men were created equal.
10. Nixon Resigned Because Of Watergate
Richard “Dick” Nixon possessed many talents and wore several hats during his well-chronicled life — most of which he spent in public service. Soldier. Lawyer. Congressman. Senator. Vice President. President. Trickster. Etc. Furthermore, he even managed to get his drink on regularly, pounding rum and Cokes late at night while roaming the White House and drunk-dialing old pals. Despite his multi-tasking prowess, Nixon’s paranoia and vindictive nature ultimately led to his disgraced ouster from politics.
Although the Watergate scandal would define the Nixon presidency, it was all his shady shenanigans prior to the infamous break-in that set off a domino effect and fall from grace. Nixon’s insatiable thirst for power didn’t stop after winning the White House in 1968. It was just the beginning. In an effort to wield control over his enemies (both real and imagined), he organized a goon squad led by aides G. Gordon Liddy and E. Howard Hunt to find dirt by any means possible
Among other criminal activities, the team carried out the office burglary of the psychiatrist treating the infamous Pentagon Papers whistleblower, Daniel Ellsberg. Nixon feared the ex-military analyst might squawk more about the government’s misinformation involving the Vietnam War, and wanted him silenced — even if it meant blackmail.
But in the end, “Tricky Dick” would be exposed for orchestrating a massive cover-up of multiple wrong-doings, including obstruction of justice, destroying evidence, secret bombing missions in Cambodia and Laos — as well as that little incident at the Democratic National Committee headquarters — better known as Watergate.
9. Teddy Roosevelt Once Rode a Bull Moose
There’s a famous scene in the classic western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance when a reporter discovers that an esteemed politician (Jimmy Stewart) managed to build his entire reputation on a myth. In the end, however, the journalist comes to the conclusion, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” While that works to sell newspapers and Hollywood endings, the truth usually surfaces. Such is the case of a well-circulated, grainy photo of Teddy Roosevelt riding bareback on an enormous bull moose. Sadly, it never happened — the legend is a much better story.
What makes this ruse particularly deflating is that for decades Roosevelt really did live an extraordinary life. To wit: he triumphantly emerged as the hero of San Juan Hill in the Spanish-American War; he once gave a stump speech while bleeding from the chest after being shot; and fittingly, as a champion of America’s Progressive Era, Roosevelt became forever enshrined in stone on Mount Rushmore along with fellow Presidential titans George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln.
Nonetheless, the phony photo was pure bull (moose) sh… er, stuff. The publicity stunt was hatched during Roosevelt’s comeback attempt to win a third presidential bid as the candidate for the new progressive, “Bull-Moose Party.” Having lost the Republican nomination to incumbent William Taft, Roosevelt hoped to blaze a new trail by breaking away from the GOP, relying on his aforementioned hyper-masculinity and magnetic personality. It didn’t work. The cleverly doctored image would be eventually exposed and voters opted for new leadership with the election of Democrat Woodrow Wilson.
8. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation Freed The Slaves
No other U.S. President has been equally worshipped and vilified as much as Abraham Lincoln. Although history typically shines a glowing light on our 16th President as a beloved martyr who helped preserve the Union, Lincoln’s views on slavery didn’t always live up to his appeal for “better angels of our nature.”
While Lincoln stood against the expansion of slavery, he never campaigned as an abolitionist and wrestled with the constitutionality to end slavery. In a letter dated August 22, 1862, to renowned newspaper editor Horace Greeley (of “Go West, young man” fame), Lincoln wrote, “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.”
Infusing a similar wavering tone, Lincoln used his executive power to issue the Emancipation Proclamation six months later. The carefully worded document only granted freedom to slaves in states that had seceded — but it didn’t apply to those in border states, or certain regions considered loyal to the Union. For the record, slavery would not be formally abolished until two years with the passing of the 13th Amendment into law.
7. Gerald Ford Had Two Left Feet
For those old enough to remember the early days of Saturday Night Live, Chevy Chase performed a series of running gags depicting then-President Ford as a clumsy buffoon. The comedy sketches drew big laughs and even bigger ratings, helping to launch the stellar cast into superstardom as the show became one of the longest-running programs in television history.
Although Ford had his share of political stumbles (pardoning Nixon; losing to Carter in ’76) the 38th president had been a bonafide star athlete at the University of Michigan. Ford played center and linebacker on the Wolverines football team that went undefeated for two years, winning national titles in 1932 and 1933. After graduating with a degree in economics, he turned down offers from the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers of the NFL to pursue a coaching job while attending Yale Law School.
Ford later served with distinction in the U.S. Navy during WWII, rising to the rank of Lieutenant Commander. The athletic and well-respected officer took part in numerous combat operations in the Pacific while stationed aboard the aircraft carrier, USS Monterey, including the Battle of the Philippine Sea, and carrier strikes against Japanese forces at Wake Island, Marianas and New Guinea.
Flash forward to 2018: SNL is in its 44th season, Bill Murray is still funny, Chevy Chase isn’t, and Gilda Radner and John Belushi died way too soon. But for the record, Gerald Ford may have only served a brief, largely forgettable 2-year term, but his impressive athleticism is no laughing matter.
6. Zachary Taylor Was Poisoned To Death
On July 9, 1850, President Zachary Taylor suddenly died from a mysterious illness. Rumors immediately began to swirl that he had been poisoned — with his wife, Margaret “Peggy” Taylor as one of the prime suspects. Although some historians still debate the exact cause of death for #12, we can safely rule out that the First Lady didn’t whack Ol’ Zach.
Taylor, a career soldier and the hero of the Mexican/American War, reluctantly entered the political arena as the Whig Party’s nominee. Although his views were seen as vague at best, he vehemently opposed slavery and saw preserving the Union as his primary objective. In the 1848 Presidential election, the veteran fighter nicknamed “Ol’ Rough and Ready” (great male stripper name) narrowly defeated democrat Lewis Cass to become the first President to be elected without having ever previously served public office.
A few days before his death, Taylor attended a fund-raising event for the Washington Monument, where he consumed an ample serving of raw fruit and iced milk. Soon after returning to the White House he began feeling violently ill with a stomach ailment. At the time, cholera outbreaks were common — especially in the warm Summer months in which the disease easily spread in Washington’s open sewers. Unfortunately, Taylor’s condition never improved and he would be eventually diagnosed as having most likely suffered a bacterial infection of the small intestine or possibly gastroenteritis.
Although speculation circulated in some circles that pro-slavery southerners may have carried an assassination plot, no hard evidence ever surfaced. As for Taylor’s widow, Peggy had already been in poor health by the time the couple arrived in Washington and typically delegated most of her First Lady duties to her daughter, Mary Elizabeth.
5. Ronald Reagan: Conservative Icon Or The Great Compromiser?
For most Republicans, the mere mention of the 40th President invokes hushed reverence for a man known as “The Gipper” and a beacon of conservative ideals. But a closer examination of the facts reveals a cunning politician, who frequently raised taxes to support federal programs, nearly tripled the national debt and considered FDR one his early idols. Not exactly talking points heard in conservative media.
Nonetheless, Reagan’s complex legacy remains tilted heavily to the right. His fiscal policies, labeled “Reaganomics” (or “voodoo economics” by his opponents) touted a trickle-down effect to stimulate the economy built on lower income tax, and reduced government regulations and spending (except for the military). Results were mixed. While GDP growth flourished, income disparity grew — as did homelessness, resulting from slashed federal programs for mental health and assistance to the poor.
It’s also worth noting that Reagan spent most of his life as a Democrat. The former actor, best known for his role of George “The Gipper” Gipp in Knute Rockne All American, (and who also once starred with a chimpanzee in Bedtime for Bonzo) got his first taste of power as a five-term president of the Screen Actors Guild. He later switched sides shortly before making a successful gubernatorial bid in California, where he served two terms.
The fervent wave of nostalgia may also be rooted in a desire for basic civility. Reagan, reflecting his core Midwestern values, never disparaged his opponents, frequently reached across the aisle, and always upheld the dignity befitting the office of the Presidency — a concept long gone in today’s toxic political environment.
Regretfully, the Iran-Contra Affair left behind an ugly stain in which the government sold arms to Iran (the bad guys) to help fund Nicaraguan rebels (the good guys) to fight the Sandinistas (good and bad guys) — all in an effort to raise money and rescue Americans in Lebanon. Yes, that really happened. In the end, however, none of that really matters because Rambo Ron ruled the ’80s, won the Cold War, and ended the Iran hostage crisis (even though Carter did most of the heavy lifting — but that’s another story).
4. JFK Was Groomed To Be President
John F. Kennedy was born into a juggernaut political family as the son of wealthy businessman and politician Joseph “Joe” Kennedy and the equally well-connected Rose (nee Fitzgerald) Kennedy. The handsome young man called “Jack” certainly looked the part and even married the perfect wife, Jackie, while living like royalty on their idyllic compound dubbed “Camelot” (Massachusetts, actually). However, Joe Kennedy, Jr., JFK’s older brother, had been originally anointed as the chosen one to become the first Roman Catholic President.
Joe, the oldest of nine Kennedy children, possessed the same good looks, smarts (pronounced “smahts”) and charm than ran deep in the family bloodline. He graduated from Harvard with honors in 1938 and studied abroad at the London School of Economics before enrolling at Harvard Law School. Naturally, the political arena beckoned. America’s involvement in World War Two would temporarily curtail those ambitions as Kennedy set his sights on becoming a naval aviator. After getting his wings, he eventually flew 25 combat mission in the European Theater of Operations (ETO) as a bomber pilot.
Meanwhile, back home, the Kennedy clan eyed the 1946 Massachusetts Congressional District 11 seat for Joe to make his initial strides towards the White House. But first, the recently promoted Lieutenant Kennedy accepted one last assignment before rotating stateside.
The dangerous mission involved deliberately crashing a modified B-24 loaded with munitions inside enemy territory. Codenamed Operation Aphrodite, Kennedy was tasked with setting the course before parachuting to safety but the explosives detonated prematurely, killing him instantly. Kennedy’s remains were never found. For his actions on August 12, 1944, he was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross.
The tragic event would become the first of many to befall the Kennedy family. Joe later received a commemorative headstone at Arlington National Cemetery, where he would be joined by his brothers, John and Robert.
3. Taft Got Stuck In A Bathtub
William Taft was a large man. Weighing in at a robust 340 pounds, he easily holds the record for the heaviest U.S. President to date. Although portly caricatures dominated political cartoons of the day, the story about Taft getting stuck in a tub and having to be extracted by six men is pure fiction.
America’s hefty head of state did, in fact, have an over-sized bathtub installed in the White House during his four years at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. But having a big boy tub would have also made it far less likely to be trapped like a wet blubbery walrus at the zoo. Fat jokes aside, the apocryphal fable continues to persist.
The account is attributed to Ike Hoover, a White House butler and usher, whose 1934 memoir, 42 Years in the White House, contains a small anecdote in which Taft “would stick” in the tub while bathing. That’s all. No other details are provided nor were ever substantiated by any other credible person. Furthermore, the notoriously reticent Taft did not have a friendly relationship with the press, who would have been merciless had the whale tale ever leaked (sorry, cheap pun).
Fortunately for Taft, his legacy includes being the only president to also serve a chief justice — and began the grand tradition of the president throwing out the ceremonial pitch on major league baseball’s opening day. Go, number 27!
2. George Washington Had Wooden Teeth
Wearing dentures is one of the many dreaded predations associated with aging. Whether stemming from poor dental hygiene, genetics or just one too many barroom brawls, tooth loss occurs — even to Presidents. Although orthodontia has come a long way since the 1700s, George Washington’s chompers were NOT made from lumber.
A full set of Washington’s false teeth can be found in the permanent collection at Mount Vernon — the site of his ancestral estate in northern Virginia. Unfortunately, painful dental problems troubled the Revolutionary War hero and future president throughout his life. As a result, he wore several sets of dentures made from various materials such as ivory, gold, and lead, and held together by uncomfortable metal wires. Ouch.
The myth undoubtedly grew over time when visitors to Mount Vernon noticed that one of his ivory sets appeared stained and wooden-looking. The yellowing discoloration, however, is completely natural — even though an adoring public much prefers the image of Washington crossing the Delaware sporting pearly whites.
1. Washington And That Cherry Tree
When you’re the father of a country, it’s not surprising the man would have more than one pervasive myth clinging to his legend. And as this fable goes, a young George Washington once cut down a cherry tree on the family farm near Fredericksburg, Virginia. When later confronted by his father, Augustine, the wee lad replied, “I can’t tell a lie, Pa; you know I can’t tell a lie. I did cut it with my hatchet.“ Sure, it’s a swell little folktale — but phonier than a three dollar bill.
Washington’s first biographer, Mason Locke Weems, concocted the yarn shortly after his subject’s death in 1799. Weems, a traveling book salesman, and ordained Episcopal minister, felt obliged to exalt the fallen leader by using the story to symbolize Washington’s honesty and integrity. Published in 1800, The Life of Washington provides an effusive, veracity-challenged account of Washington’s charmed life. Not surprisingly, the book became an immediate best-seller — even though the passage about the cherry tree doesn’t appear until the fifth edition six years later.
Analyzing the case from a CSI lens, here’s what we know for sure…
Location: Fredericksburg, Virginia
The victim: mature cherry tree.
The suspect: Washington, George. 6 years old. Male. Caucasian. Approx. 3-foot-9 /45 lbs.
The weapon: small blade
Clearly, the facts simply don’t add up, folks. So unless this still-wet-behind-the-ears first grader secretly possessed some kind of Paul Bunyan, superhuman lumberjack strength, it’s fairly unlikely — if not damn near impossible — that a little boy in knickers could have chopped down that timber with his pocket-knife.
Decades later, legendary huckster P.T. Barnum helped perpetuate the myth by employing a former slave named Joice Heth, who according to Barnum, was not only 161 years years, but had also raised Washington and could corroborate the great Horticulture Homicide of 1738.