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'Don't Know Much About the American Presidents': Kenneth C. Davis reveals strange facts about America's leaders

George Washington breaking the law? The president with the most corrupt presidential administration in American history? Writer Kenneth C. Davis discusses surprising facts about our past leaders.

By Erik Spanberg / October 24, 2012

Kenneth C. Davis's book, 'Don't Know Much About the American Presidents,' is a follow-up to 'Don't Know Much' titles that examine general history, the Bible, and the Civil War.

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Did you know that Americans didn’t start voting for president on the same day until 1845? Or that George Washington wasn’t our nation’s first president? Another Virginian, Peyton Randolph, a longtime member of the House of Burgesses, won an election as the first president of the Continental Congress in 1774, succeeded by a baker’s dozen of leaders before the ascension of Washington to the presidency as we know it.

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What about the presidential origins of the word “okay”? Thank Martin Van Buren, whose birthplace of Old Kinderhook, N.Y., in initials, made way for okay. Or OK, if you prefer.

Did you know that Jimmy Carter was our first president born in a hospital? Or that, 225 years ago during the debates that led to the creation of the commander-in-chief, the job “was being invented by men who didn’t necessarily think that having a president was such a great idea?”

The latter quote comes from the pen of Kenneth C. Davis, a man known to millions of readers for posing endless questions and then answering them with detailed but snappy historical facts and anecdotes. This accidental historian, nudged by his wife into writing while working at a bookstore, burst on to bestseller lists in 1990 with “Don’t Know Much About History,” a pop history confection that spawned a series of similar titles on geography, the Bible, and the Civil War.

The latest entry, "Don’t Know Much About the American Presidents," follows the popular formula Davis established throughout the series. He offers the basic cornerstones – biographies of each president, important legislation and decisions, controversies and scandals – along with all manner of Oval Office bric-a-brac, starting with origins of the Oval Office itself, which was built during the administration of William Howard Taft (who weighed 300 pounds and still ranks as the heaviest president in history), but never described as the Oval Office until the days of FDR.

Beyond history and historical oddities, Davis weaves in memorable quotes from the presidents and supplies extensive lists of essential reading and websites for those wanting to learn more about various presidents and aspects of the presidency.

As the nation stands on the cusp of Election Day, following a 220-year tradition that formally began with Washington in 1789, Davis is happy to remind us of how we, and POTUS (that would be the President of the United States), got here. Following are excerpts from a recent conversation Davis had with the Monitor on mudslinging campaigns, overlooked presidencies and more.

In the introduction, you mention a school project from 1963 about the presidents and your admiration for JFK. Is he still your favorite president?

I would not say he’s my favorite president. The history behind that ... and I’m actually holding it in my hands as we speak, this piece of art, as I call it, from 1963, my third-grade school project. I did go to the Holmes School in Mount Vernon, New York, of course named for Washington’s famous plantation and, obviously, when I was nine years old, I was still thinking about this stuff. Of course, October 1963 was a month before the world changed for all of us in the loss of Kennedy.

When I look back at this [childhood] book, which I wrote 49 years ago, it’s funny because I did ask questions from the first page. So I was obviously interested in information about history from a young age. And I say this very, very seriously, I also have on my desk a toy wooden revolver that I was given as a souvenir from going to Gettysburg in the summer of 1963.

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