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Columns at museum's entrance

The Importance of Presidential Trivia

David C. Ward
January 18, 2017
Two men sitting in flowered armchairs engaged in conversation
Calvin Coolidge and William Howard Taft / Harris and Ewing Studio / 1923 / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution / Gift of Aileen Conkey

One of the things that makes the modern presidency a particularly difficult—perhaps even impossible—job is that Americans expect their presidents to be both sublimely confident and powerful statesmen but also “just plain folks,” no different, really, than you and I. Politicians, of course, know the value of the homey touch and of posing as a man of the people in order to create an appealing persona. These days a great deal of thought, and money, goes into creating an appealing image of a candidate. In our media-saturated Internet age, we are all very savvy about how a public persona is created, and we all are perhaps a bit jaded by the artifice involved. Everything seems to be very tightly scripted, with presidents even polling about the political impact of where they take their vacations! But the centrality of the presidency to American politics and society ensures that the inhabitants of the White House will always be scrutinized closely for telltale signs about character, personality, quirks, and habits.

Our appetite for presidential trivia seems inexhaustible. Remember the first term coverage of the Obamas’ acquisition of Bo, the water dog? Presidential pets are always a reliable human interest news story. Calvin Coolidge, who enjoyed being extremely reticent, had an extravagant menagerie at the White House, including the usual dogs and birds but also a bobcat and “Billy,” a pygmy hippopotamus. William Howard Taft kept a cow named Pauline both as a pet and for milk and butter; it was nearly slaughtered by mistake when shipping instructions went awry. Lyndon Johnson used to chat with the press while walking his beagles around the White House’s pathway. He came under criticism for his habit of lifting the hounds by their ears to show them off. The president claimed this was normal practice in Texas, but some thought this just was another aspect of his overbearing personality. The episode highlights the dilemma for the president: once people have formed an opinion of you, that opinion will color everything you do. Richard Nixon owned a purebred Irish setter whose name—King Timahoe— confirmed the man’s pretentiousness for those opposed to him. The Nixons probably had a nickname for the pooch, but it didn’t matter. One of the few successful White House makeovers was performed by First Lady Nancy Reagan who, criticized for being aloof and privileged, poked fun at herself in a skit at the White House correspondents’ dinner and earned a second chance in the court of public opinion.

We examine each incoming president for signs and portents of both their innate character and how they will govern. There’s always a relationship between one’s private and public selves, but the linkage is not always clear. It’s exotic that Calvin Coolidge owned two alligators. Or that John Quincy Adams liked to take early morning skinny dips in the Potomac. Franklin Roosevelt insisted that his guests drink his famously bad martinis (too much vermouth). It’s rather more significant that Andrew Jackson’s hair-trigger temper involved him in more than 100 challenges, including several actual duels. Theodore Roosevelt’s attitude toward government might be discerned from how he liked to challenge his White House visitors to boxing matches. Conversely, Dwight Eisenhower’s fondness for reading western novels was once seen as a sign of his detachment from governing. We now might be more sympathetic to Ike, seeing his reading habit as welcome relief from the grind, as well as a personal ability to delegate and compartmentalize; perhaps we don’t need a president who will put out every small fire. Again, perspective is everything. Like the fortune-teller’s tea leaves, we pore over presidential lives but are never quite sure what is significant—or simply trivia. With the presidency, nothing is never unimportant until it is.

You can learn more Presidential fun facts at David's tour at noon on Jan. 19. 

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