'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.
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With Eisenhower, there was a period when he was seen as the genial guy who did nothing for eight years. Part of the reassessment there is we see more of the documentation, more of the letters, more of the diaries, more of revelations of how involved he was. An era of relative peace and prosperity, but still troubled by things. While Grant was very good on racial issues, Eisenhower was not very progressive about bringing the country forward. He did bring the troops in to support the Little Rock Nine, but he really did that almost because he had to. That’s still a serious mark against Eisenhower by most modern historians.Skip to next paragraph
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Which of the lesser-known presidents do you find most interesting?
I would like to emphasize that each of these 43 men who became president, whether they were great or not-so-great, dim bulbs or bright lights, they were all extraordinary in their time in some respect. They didn’t get to be there just because they happened to be in the right place in the right time.
Andrew Johnson, for his very flawed presidency, is still an extraordinary personal story. The equal of Lincoln in many respects. He was born into extraordinary poverty, almost sold into indentured servitude, is illiterate well into his youth, becomes this self-educated person, eventually becomes a lawyer. And if he were a greater president, we would put him on a pedestal as an exemplar of the American dream.
Or maybe the lesser-regarded, such as Warren Harding?
Warren Harding is getting a reflected notoriety these days because of [HBO’s] “Boardwalk Empire," seeing this very elaborate drama play out against the era of Prohibition and the fact that Warren G. Harding briefly appeared in the series. But his attorney general, Harry Daugherty, is really a major-minor character, and he was a real person and did do those things that they talk about in the series. To me, that’s wonderful.
Warren G. Harding was very popular when he was elected, but a great disaster for the most part. He was surrounded by, without question, the most corrupt administration in history. He was not personally ever accused but, again, completely naïve. That’s a fascinating story.
On the brighter side, I think one of the most interesting is William McKinley, who also has an extraordinary young personal story. Born into poverty, loses his father. So many of the presidents did grow up without fathers, it’s interesting. They either didn’t have fathers or their fathers were not significant figures or even worse. Lincoln, for instance, had a very testy relationship with his father, George Washington’s father died when he was 11, Herbert Hoover’s parents both died by the time he was nine.
McKinley, to go back to his story, [was] raised in rural poverty in Ohio, pulls himself up by the bootstraps, enlists in the Civil War when’s very young, drives a wagon into the front lines at Antietam to deliver meals to the men who were under fire, rises up through the ranks and eventually becomes a politician and president. He takes the presidency at this turning point from the 19th century into the 20th century, sees America through this war with Spain and is bringing America into the global spotlight. He’s a transitional figure and he’s assassinated early into his second term and replaced by Theodore Roosevelt. That’s one of the reasons he is overshadowed.
Your prediction for Election Day: Obama or Romney?
I’m glad you asked me for a prediction and not a preference. My prediction would be, speaking as an historian, that the powers of incumbency are pretty large [favoring Obama].
Erik Spanberg is a Monitor contributor.