Here are 21 shocking, surprising, and downright interesting facts about former presidents, from Jimmy Carter selling the presidential yacht to Ronald Reagan learning about computer hacking from the movie WarGames:
1.Warren G. Harding has gone down in history as one of the worst presidents the United States has ever seen. Turns out, he also was embroiled in a passionate affair that his family tried to cover up after his death for fear of making his legacy appear even worse in the public eye. A series of letters exchanged between Harding and Carrie Fulton Phillips, who was allegedly his mistress for about 15 years in the 1910s and 1920s, surfaced in 1964 when Francis Russell, a historian, attempted to publish them. The Harding family promptly sued Russell. The Hardings eventually agreed that the letters would be sealed for 50 years and gave them to the Library of Congress.
In 2014, the Library of Congress released 106 letters. Many of them were written on official Senate stationery and were shockingly explicit. In some of the letters, Harding referred to his penis as "Jerry," which was assumed to be a code name that would protect the politician in case the letters were intercepted. Phillips and Harding's affair spanned his terms as the lieutenant governor of Ohio and as a US senator. Once Harding won the Republican presidential nomination, the Republican National Committee was forced to pay off Phillips, who was threatening to release the letters to the public. Harding also allegedly gave Phillips a stipend of about $5,000 a year to keep her quiet.
The affair had potential political repercussions. Phillips supported Germany in World War I and would frequently try to convince Harding to share her views. She sent him newspaper articles and was known for challenging Harding for his stance on issues while he was a senator. After Harding and Phillips split once he became president, they still saw each other privately. Some believed that Phillips was a spy. Other historians have claimed that Harding warned Phillips that authorities were focusing on her and her husband, although her family has denied these claims.
2.As a kid, I was obsessed with presidents, and I was even more obsessed with the story that William Howard Taft got stuck in the White House bathtub and required the strength of six men to free him. Years later, I learned that the story was actually a total myth. The legend reportedly began to spread after Irwin Hoover, who worked in the White House for over 40 years, wrote in his 1934 memoir that Taft used to "stick" to the tub and required assistance when getting out. The story is actually quite sad: Taft, who had been vocal about struggling with his weight, weighed about 340 pounds at the time of his inauguration, and was often chastised by the press for it.
3.While most of the country was all in on The Simpsons, First Lady Barbara Bush was not a fan. She said the show was "the dumbest thing I've ever seen." The Simpsons writing staff decided to respond to her critiques through a letter written by Marge Simpson, the show's matriarch. In the letter, Marge wrote, "Heaven knows we’re far from perfect and, if truth be known, maybe just a wee bit short of normal; but as Dr. Seuss says, 'A person is a person.'"
Bush jokingly sent a response of her own: "I am glad you spoke your mind; I foolishly didn’t know you had one." She apologized for the remarks, and the feud seemed to be settled until, in 1992, President George H.W. Bush dissed The Simpsons in a speech. "We are going to keep on trying to strengthen the American family to make American families a lot more like the Waltons and a lot less like the Simpsons!"
4.When President Zachary Taylor suddenly died on July 9, 1850, his death became the subject of many conspiracy theories. After all, Taylor was a war hero who was in relatively good health. On July 4, 1850, Taylor gave 4th of July remarks, then ate a large number of cherries, topped off with a glass of milk. Soon after, he began suffering from intense stomach pains and took to his bed, where he remained until he died several days later. The official cause of death was cholera morbus.
Shortly after Taylor's death, conspiracy theories began to swirl. Some thought he had been killed by pro-slavery Southerners, especially after he decided it would be best for California to join the Union as a free state. Others believed that he had been murdered in order to pave the way for Millard Fillmore to take office. After all, when Taylor died, Fillmore swiftly replaced every single Cabinet member, something that was unprecedented for the time. The theories persisted for over a century, until 1991 when Taylor's body was exhumed. Medical examiners declared once and for all that he died from gastroenteritis that might have been caused by the White House's contaminated water supply.
5.Some consider Martin Van Buren to be the first true American president. Van Buren was born in New York in 1782, making him the first president who was born in the United States. Despite this, Van Buren was the first and, so far, only president for whom English was his second language. He grew up speaking Dutch.
6.Richard Nixon was a huge football fan who attempted to use the game to his political advantage. Nixon actually played football at Whittier College, although he allegedly was a benchwarmer who rarely saw any field time. After college, he even supposedly tossed around the idea of becoming a sportswriter. Once he became president, Nixon went to football games in order to appear relatable to his constituents. After attending a game between the Miami Dolphins and Oakland Raiders, Nixon was reportedly furious that the media didn't report that the crowd gave him a standing ovation.
As tensions revolving around ending the war in Vietnam swelled in 1969, Nixon's administration enforced "National Unity Week," which essentially involved showing "'pro-administration propaganda' at football games." On November 15, 1969, Nixon allegedly sat inside the White House and watched a football game while a massive anti-war protest waged on right outside. "The trouble…isn’t that he watches football but that he makes such an obvious and cheap political gesture of it," the Partisan Review reported.
Nixon also attempted to use his political power to influence his favorite teams. He was known to show up at Washington Redskins (now called the Washington Commanders) practices and even called up coaches to suggest certain plays. During a 1971 playoff game between the Redskins and San Francisco 49ers, the Redskins ran an unusual reverse play that resulted in a loss of yards, then a blocked field goal that ultimately allowed the 49ers to win the game. In the locker room, one player claimed that coach George Allen had been given "executive orders" to call the bizarre play, with many assuming the call came from Nixon. In 2012, ESPN reported that the play was likely a gag Allen and Nixon, who were friends, set up as a joke to garner media attention.
7.Grover Cleveland somehow was able to spin a horrific scandal to his advantage in his bid for the presidency. It all started in 1873, when Cleveland met Maria Halpin and insisted that he take her on a date. After their dinner, Cleveland escorted Halpin back to her room at the boarding house where she was staying and allegedly raped her. When she threatened to alert the authorities, Cleveland told Halpin that "he was determined to ruin me if it cost him $10,000, if he was hanged by the neck for it. I then and there told him that I never wanted to see him again [and] commanded him to leave my room, which he did." Six weeks later, Halpin learned that she was pregnant with Cleveland's baby.
Cleveland had his sights set on entering politics and believed that a scandal would derail his chances. He arranged to have the baby taken from Halpin, who he sent to the Providence Lunatic Asylum. In 1881, Cleveland became the mayor of Buffalo, and just a year later, was elected governor of New York. By 1884, he was known in the press as "Grover the Good," and secured the Democratic nomination for president. Soon, the media revealed the story of Cleveland's son and exposed Halpin's identity. Cleveland's team created a story that Halpin slept with several married men, and said that Cleveland bravely decided to say he was the child's father because he was the only single man in the group. Many believed Cleveland's story, and he was elected president in both 1885 and 1893. Researchers have since debunked Cleveland's claims.
8.When Woodrow Wilson married Edith Bolling in 1915, she made headlines for being "a real American Princess of [Native] Indian Lineage." In fact, Edith was actually a direct descendent of Pocahontas, with the linkage dating back 10 generations. Edith supposedly loved to flaunt her relation to Pocahontas, but often faced criticism for her lack of attention to causes that supported Native Americans. Pocahontas wasn't the only big name Edith could connect her lineage to. She was also related to Thomas Jefferson, Robert E. Lee, Martha Washington, and Letitia Tyler.
9.Starting in 1880, US presidents had the use of numerous presidential boats. The longest-running boat was the USSSequoia, which set sail in 1933 and was known as the "floating White House." The US government purchased the Sequoia from a Texas oil tycoon. Before becoming the presidential yacht, the boat was used as a decoy ship to catch rum runners in the Mississippi River during Prohibition. In 1933, the boat was officially commissioned by the Navy and was first used for a fishing trip by President Herbert Hoover, who was criticized for using such a luxurious boat while the country was in the middle of the Great Depression.
From then on, every president used the boat and made special accommodations to suit his needs. Franklin Delano Roosevelt installed an elevator on board, while Harry Truman added a piano. John F. Kennedy added a king-size bed to the boat, and some even suspected that Marilyn Monroe was a guest on board. When Lyndon B. Johnson took office, he took out the elevator and added a bar in its place. Richard Nixon was the president who used the boat most frequently, clocking in 88 trips during his time in office. In fact, he even announced his plans to resign the presidency to his family on the Sequoia. When Jimmy Carter took office in 1977, he learned that the boat cost $880,000 a year to maintain and staff. Carter ran on a campaign that promised to eliminate unnecessary luxuries of the presidency and auctioned off the boat for $236,000.
Throughout the 1980s, the boat was rented out often, commanding fees of more than $10,000 a day because of its presidential history. Despite the fact that there was a demand for the Sequoia, the boat needed constant maintenance and repairs. In 2000, Gary Silversmith, an attorney, purchased the boat. Silversmith could not afford the repairs and borrowed $5 million from an Indian group called FE Partners to fix the boat, which had fallen into disarray and reportedly had a colony of raccoons living on board. After he failed to pay back the loan, FE Partners wanted to purchase the yacht from Silversmith, who sued. In 2016, FE Partners won the case and was granted the right to purchase the yacht for $0. FE Partners said they are committed to restoring the yacht.
10.Presidents, they're just like us? George H.W. Bush hated broccoli so much that he even gave a statement to the press about his distaste for the veggie. “I do not like broccoli,” he said. “And I haven’t liked it since I was a little kid and my mother made me eat it. And I’m president of the United States, and I’m not going to eat any more broccoli!” He even reportedly banned the vegetable from Air Force One. After his comments were made public, a group of farmers sent Bush a 10-ton shipment of broccoli ahead of a state dinner. Despite the gift, broccoli did not make it onto the menu for the event.
11.Thomas Jefferson was an avid horticulturist who loved spending time tending to his gardens, which contained more than 300 plant varieties. At Monticello, Jefferson's Virginia estate, he grew several types of poppies. Peggy Cornett, Monticello’s historic gardener and curator of plants, told Mental Floss that growing poppies was very typical of the time period. Once Jefferson died in 1826, his gardens were mostly abandoned. About 115 years later, the Garden Club of Virginia started to restore Jefferson's gardens.
In the 1980s, the Thomas Jefferson Center for Historic Plants opened. Part of the center's offerings included rare seeds available for purchase. One of the seed varieties available for purchase were poppy seeds. No one thought much of the poppy seeds until 1991 when the Drug Enforcement Administration began to crack down on drugs following a drug bust at the University of Virginia. Soon, the DEA was inquiring about the poppies available at the Center for Historic Plants.
The Center was incredibly honest about their poppies and ensured they were properly labeled. However, they noted their frustration with the situation, and said the DEA refused to clarify if selling the poppy seeds was illegal. After turning to both the Attorney General and the US Department of Agriculture with mixed answers, the Center finally asked the DEA to make a final decision. The DEA ruled that the Center had to pull up the plants and stop selling the seeds. While growing opium poppies is actually illegal, the Center still grows some plants with low levels of opium.
12.While presidential inaugurations now all take place on Jan. 20, that rule only came into play in 1933. Before then, inaugurations normally took place on March 4, a date that represented the start of the new federal government under the ratified Constitution. However, when Zachary Taylor was set to be inaugurated on March 4, 1849, he refused to take the oath of office.
So why did the new president refuse to be sworn in on March 4? Taylor was very religious and didn't want to be sworn in on a Sunday. However, his predecessor, James Polk, had already left office by this point, meaning that for a matter of hours in 1849, there was technically no president at all.
13.On Oct. 14, 1912, Theodore Roosevelt was heading to an auditorium to deliver a campaign speech in Wisconsin. Although Roosevelt had retired from politics following the end of the second term of his presidency in 1909, he had been so disappointed by William Howard Taft's presidency that he formed the National Progressives party and decided to run for re-election. When Roosevelt left his hotel, he folded his 50-page speech in half and put it in the breast pocket of his coat, next to a metal case holding his glasses. As he headed to his car, a man emerged from the crowd and fired a revolver at Roosevelt's chest.
Roosevelt's entourage told him he needed to seek medical attention, but he refused. Instead, he pressed his finger to his lips, and after finding that he was not bleeding from the mouth, decided that the bullet hadn't hit his lung. He continued onto the auditorium, where he was quickly examined before giving the speech. It was determined that his script and glasses case prevented the bullet from puncturing his lung, although he did have a dime-sized bullet wound in his chest. Roosevelt spoke to the crowd for 84 minutes, then headed to the hospital, where it was found that the bullet was in his rib, where it remained for the rest of his life. Weeks later, he was defeated by Woodrow Wilson in the election.
14.By the time George Washington was elected president in 1789, his teeth were in such bad shape that he only had one real tooth left in his entire mouth. He had a long history of dental issues and normally wore dentures, which were comprised of his own teeth that had been pulled, teeth he took from the slaves he owned, and animals. In 1796, he had his final tooth pulled and gave it to his dentist, Dr. John Greenwood, as a gift. Greenwood kept the tooth in a small glass container that hung from his watch chain.
15.When Gerald Ford became the President of the United States on August 9, 1974 after Richard Nixon resigned, he officially became the first and only person to serve as president without being elected to either the presidency or the vice presidency. Richard Nixon had selected him to be his vice president after Spiro Agnew, Nixon's running mate, resigned in 1972.
Nixon, who resigned after the Watergate scandal, nominated Ford, who was the House minority leader at the time, to be his vice president following Agnew's departure. In 1973, Ford was confirmed as vice president. This method of replacing the vice president was relatively new. Before Nevada ratified the 25th Amendment, which created this new presidential line of succession in 1967, the Speaker of the House would have become the new president. Once Ford became president, the Speaker of the House was his acting vice president until Nelson Rockefeller, his actual choice, was confirmed.
16.During the Geneva Summit in 1985, US President Ronald Reagan and Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev went on a walk together. Their discussion was kept under wraps until 2009, when it was revealed that during the stroll, Reagan, who was a big science fiction fan, asked Gorbachev if they could agree to pause the Cold War in the case of an alien invasion. The two even agreed to help each other out in the event that either country was attacked by the invaders.
17.Theodore Roosevelt's family was known for their menagerie of unusual pets during his presidency. When he took office in 1901, his 17-year-old daughter Alice got Emily Spinach, a garter snake, as a pet. Alice reportedly chose the name "because it was as green as spinach and as thin as my Aunt Emily." Her brother Quentin also loved snakes. He reportedly bought four snakes at a pet store, then barged into the Oval Office while Theodore was in a meeting with several senators and let the snakes loose. They were quickly captured and taken back to the pet shop.
In addition to the snakes, the family kept dogs, birds, a one-legged rooster, several horses, and even a small bear as pets. The family's bull terrier Pete reportedly bit so many White House employees and visitors that he had to be sent away to the family's home in Long Island.
18.Rose Cleveland was the first LGBTQ+ First Lady. Rose served as First Lady during her brother Grover Cleveland's presidency because he was unmarried. During the time period, unmarried presidents had to select a female relative to fill in as First Lady. Rose, who was an author and teacher, provided a well-respected counter to her brother's often debaucherous ways. Rose left the White House in 1886 after Grover married Frances Folsom, his 21-year-old ward. During the winter of 1890, she met Evangeline Simpson.
By April 1890, the two began writing each other love letters. For six years, the couple traded letters, traveled together, and even revealed their relationship to their families, who appeared to have accepted them. In 1896, Evangeline shocked Rose by announcing that she was engaged to Henry Whipple. She wrote back begging her to reconsider, but they married later that fall, and Rose fled to Europe. While they kept in contact, their letters became far less frequent. Whipple died in 1901, and soon, Rose and Evangeline resumed their relationship. In 1909, Rose gave Evangeline an ultimatum: They needed to live together. She agreed, and the pair moved to Italy, where they lived until Rose's death in 1917.
19.When WarGames, which featured a teenage hacker breaking into the US missile system and nearly launching nuclear war, was released in 1983, Ronald Reagan was treated to a screening at Camp David. After finishing the movie, Reagan called a meeting and asked, "Could something like this really happen? Could someone break into our most sensitive computers?" White House staff went on to investigate, and about a week later, came to Reagan and said, "Mr. President, the problem is much worse than you think.” Reagan's fears surrounding the movie eventually pushed the government to update computer security at the Department of Defense, and paved the way for the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.
20.Before the White House was built, the United States government constructed two other presidential residences that have never been occupied by a single president. When George Washington became the nation's first president, he lived in a private home in New York City. Plans were quickly developed to build Government House, a presidential mansion in Manhattan. During the home's construction, the nation's capital was temporarily moved to Philadelphia while Washington, DC, then known as the Federal District, was being developed as part of the 1790 Residence Act.
Despite the fact that Philadelphia was only a temporary capital, construction on a new presidential mansion began in 1792. The house was nearly complete when John Adams was sworn in as president in 1797. Adams refused to live in the house, saying that he believed he did not have congressional authorization to live there. The house remained empty until 1800, when the building was sold to the University of Pennsylvania. In 1800, Adams became the first president to live in the White House.
21.And finally, on March 30, 1981, President Ronald Reagan was leaving an event at the Washington Hilton when several shots were fired. Reagan was struck by a bullet that ricocheted off a limousine and lodged under his left armpit. Three other officials were injured in the assassination attempt. John Hinckley was immediately taken into custody but was found not guilty by reason of insanity. Following his trial, he spent three decades at a mental hospital until he was released in June 2022. Reagan's injuries went unnoticed until he began to cough up blood on the ride back to the White House, prompting a pivot to the emergency room.
The media initially reported that Reagan had not been injured at all during the shooting, only to backtrack their statements as more information was released. When Reagan got to the hospital, TV cameras captured him walking under his own power through the doors, but once he got inside, he allegedly collapsed to the ground. According to NPR, Reagan lost almost half of his blood volume and was just seconds away from dying because of the bullet wound. Despite the apparent severity of Reagan's wounds, the public had no idea how dire Reagan's initial prognosis was.
White House spokespeople told the media that Reagan was in great spirits. They claimed that he was cracking jokes with surgeons, reportedly telling them, "I hope you're all Republicans." He also told his wife, Nancy, that he "forgot to duck." For nearly 30 years, Americans had no idea how close to death Reagan actually was after the assassination attempt. Dr. Joe Giordano, who was then the head of trauma care at George Washington University Hospital, told CBS News that he believed Reagan would have died had he not been taken immediately to the ER.
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