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Lesser presidents deserve our attention, too

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By
From page A2 | February 19, 2012 |

Back in the day, we celebrated the birthdays of George Washington and Abe Lincoln separately. We had Washington’s birthday, then Lincoln’s birthday.

And we had the requisite jokes about “George Birthington’s Wash Day.”

It was a simpler time.

Then Richard Nixon tried to deflect the attention of Watergate by combining the celebrations as Presidents Day, adding all presidents (including him) to the list. Many political observers assumed Nixon was trying to win the support of Chester A. Arthur supporters, but that’s unproven.

Decades later, though, we’re supposed to celebrate all presidents on the third Monday of February.

It doesn’t work. When we think of Presidents Day — which is this week, by the way — we think of the big guys. We think of Washington and Lincoln. And maybe Roosevelt and Kennedy.

But not the other presidents, because we don’t remember them. We tend to remember presidents who have an iconic image.

Washington? The father of our country. Jefferson? The Louisiana Purchase. Grant? A general-turned-drunkard. Teddy Roosevelt? A macho guy yelling “bully!” Nixon? A crook. Clinton? An aging hipster playing the sax on “The Arsenio Hall Show.” Kennedy? The war hero making his memorable inaugural address.

See? We remember those guys.

But what about James Garfield, Chester Arthur, John Tyler and Warren Harding?

We draw blanks because there’s no easy way to remember them. There’s no “I am not a crook” or “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” moment.

I say it’s time to change that. And if there are no iconic memories, let’s create some.

As part of an ongoing public service, I hereby submit some interesting “facts” about some of our other presidents (and by “facts,” I mean things that could conceivably, in an alternate universe, be true). This way, when you sit around the dinner table Monday and swap stories about your favorite chief executives, you will have something to say about otherwise-obscure presidents.

It is, after all, their day. Shouldn’t we have a memory of them?

Did you “know,” for instance, that:

• Martin Van Buren invented the skateboard and often was seen racing around the streets of Washington, D.C., practicing kick flips.

• William Howard Taft was morbidly obese but would fly into a rage when people joked “When William Howard Taft sits around the White House, he sits around the White House!”

• John Tyler’s great-great-great-grandson is the lead singer for the popular rock band Aerosmith.

• Rutherford B. Hayes insisted on having a bowl of red M&Ms available before any appearance.

• Calvin Coolidge could take off from the foul line and dunk. His nickname on the playground was “Calvin School-idge,” because he took opponents to school.

• James Buchanan released several early hip-hop recordings as “J-Buck.”

• William McKinley came up with a great new flavor by mixing chocolate and peanut butter. Chief of staff Frank Reese stole the idea and went into the candy business after McKinley was assassinated.

• Herbert Hoover’s band — The Presidential Psychos — opened for Jimi Hendrix during the “Cry of Love” tour in 1970.

• Grover Cleveland was actually a blue puppet who rarely used contractions while speaking on the popular TV show “Sesame Street.”

• John Quincy Adams always — regardless of the circumstance and regardless of the audience — kept it rizzle.

• William Henry Harrison was the inventor of the comb-over.

• Zachary Taylor held the world record for longest continuous revolution of a Hula Hoop until it was broken by Mary Jane Freeze on Aug. 19, 1976.

• Warren Harding discovered Kool-Aid.

There’s more — we could talk about James Madison’s ability to play the kazoo, Millard Fillmore’s X-rated impersonation of Emperor Alexander II of Russia and Harry Truman’s fondness of breakdancing — but you get the point. You can remember those guys.

So on Presidents Day, let’s remember the lesser presidents.

After all, where would we be had Harding not discovered Kool-Aid?

Reach Brad Stanhope at 427-6958 or bstanhope@dailyrepublic.net.

Brad Stanhope

Brad Stanhope

Brad Stanhope is the Daily Republic's news editor. He began his career at the DR in the last millennium. He spent 17 years as a sports editor and three years as the associate editor before spending three years away from the newspaper (though continuing as a columnist). He returned in December 2010 as news editor. Brad lives in Suisun City with his wife, Mrs. Brad, and two sons. He enjoys cheese.
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