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The history we don’t know l Chuck's World


Last updated 2/20/2019 at Noon

My daughter had a history question a couple of months ago, and I happened to be in the room, so she asked.

“Hey, presidential trivia nerd!” she called out. Affectionately, I mean. You have to hear it in your head.

It’s true. I’m one of those people. While most of you, I assume, were aware that this past Monday was Presidents Day, I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that I celebrate this national holiday in an unusual way.

For one thing, I put up lights. There are other things.

I don’t think it’s a weird interest, although I’m not sure where it started. I think my parents got me a book on Abraham Lincoln once, then George Washington, and now here I am, following Doris Kearns-Goodwin on Twitter and waiting anxiously every year for the third Monday in February. I have special food and everything.

I’m not an historian. I’m not even a true nerd. I don’t collect things. I don’t make pilgrimages to presidential libraries or birthplaces. I don’t know much about Millard Fillmore. (Editor’s note: 13th president, 1850-1853.)

But my daughter had a question, and I had an answer. “Have any incumbent presidents failed to win re-nomination by their political parties?” she asked, for reasons I suspected but didn’t ask about.

Yes, but not for a long time. There were some significant intraparty challenges made to incumbents in the 20th century, but no sitting president has been denied another nomination by his party since Chester Arthur in 1884, and he wasn’t really trying hard.

In fact, Arthur, like four of the five presidents who failed to be re-nominated, wasn’t actually nominated a first time. These were vice-presidents who ascended to the presidency via the death of their predecessors. (Editor’s note: Fillmore again.) The only elected president who wasn’t asked to run again was Franklin Pierce, who nobody seemed to like anyway.

On the other hand, another president named Franklin (Roosevelt) was nominated four times in a row, and elected each time. He’s the only president who served more than two terms (before the 22nd Amendment limited it). He took four oaths of office and had four inaugurations.

All four were historic, too. The third and fourth are the exceptions and unlikely to happen again. His first inauguration was the last one held on March 4, and his second was the first one on Jan. 20.

You know who else took four oaths of office? Barack Obama. In 2009, Chief Justice John Roberts misread the oath, moving one word; Obama repeated the inaccurate oath, but took it again the next day in the Oval Office out of “an abundance of caution.”

In 2013, Jan. 20 fell on a Sunday, so Obama took the oath privately on that day and then publicly the next day at the official inaugural ceremonies.

FDR is always going to be a gold mine for trivia hunters, but Grover Cleveland had his moments. He was one of only two Democratic presidents in the long Republican monopoly from 1861 until 1933 (Woodrow Wilson being the other). He was the only president to get married in the White House.

He ran for president three times and won the popular vote in all three, losing the electoral college to Benjamin Harrison in 1888. Of the eight presidents following Lincoln, from Andrew Johnson through William McKinley, Cleveland was the only one who hadn’t served in the Civil War (he paid someone else – a completely legal option – to serve in his place).

And he’s the answer to a trick question: We’ve had 45 presidencies, 44 of them held by men; who was the other?

Cleveland, who lost his bid for re-election to Harrison, then returned in 1892 to win again, thus serving two non-consecutive terms and counted as our 22nd and 24th presidents. Sorry.

“There is nothing new in the world except the history you do not know,” said our 33rd president, Harry Truman, and he wasn’t talking about trivia games. Neither am I, really; I just like a particular history, and I don’t mind boring the rest of you with it once a year.

Because I think it’s important to know where we’ve been, if only to figure out how we got to where we are. We’re 21 months away from the 2020 presidential election, and already five or six candidates are running. It helps to know some history, to understand what the job entails and what kind of people have had success doing it.

If you want some insight into how we ended up in a Civil War, study the Pierce and Buchanan administrations in the 1850s. If you want to understand how we ended up with the mess in Vietnam, look at Kennedy’s truncated presidency.

If you want to know who had the biggest presidential shoe size, it was Warren Harding. You’re welcome.

And if you just want to stump your presidential trivia nerd friends, tell them that 12 presidents shared their last name with another president and ask who they were.

The Adamses and Roosevelts, of course. Two George Bushes. Our ninth president, William Henry Harrison, was the grandfather of our 23rd (Benjamin). That’s eight.

Still with me, but feeling stumped?

Lyndon Johnson and Andrew Johnson weren’t related, so that throws some people off, but that makes 10. Here’s where you put money on the table.

The other two presidents who shared a last name? They also shared a first one.

As I said, Grover Cleveland had his moments.


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