Another Country

I’m reading “No Ordinary Time,” Doris Kearns Goodwin’s account of how the Roosevelt administration managed the home front during World War II. It’s a good-enough read and well researched, but there’s sort of a rushed feeling to it that makes me wonder how long she had to work on the thing. In any case, I was struck by a brief passage on the nation’s economic situation in the spring of 1940, when Germany’s attack on Western Europe prompted FDR to push for a rapid mobilization of industry and resources in the United States. Goodwin’s point is one often made: how on the eve of war, the American economy was still in the throes of the Depression. What strikes me is the stark difference between the country she describes and the one I grew up in — having been born less than a decade after the end of the war.

“…The economy had not yet recovered; business was still not producing well enough on its own to silence the growing doubts about capitalism and democracy. Almost ten million Americans, 17 percent of the work force, were without jobs; about two and a half million found their only source of income in government programs. Of those who worked, one-half of the men and two-thirds of the women earned less than $1,000 a year. Only forty-eight thousand taxpayers in a population of 132 million earned more than $2,500 a year.

“In his second inaugural [in January 1937], Roosevelt had proclaimed that he saw “one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished. On this spring day three years later, he could still see abundant evidence of serious deprivation. Thirty-one percent of thirty-five million dwelling units did not have running water; 32 percent had no indoor toilet; 39 percent lacked a bathtub or shower; 58 percent had no central heating. Of seventy-four million Americans twenty-five years old or older, only two of five had gone beyond eighth grade; one of four had graduated from high school; one of twenty had completed college.”

Today’s Time Waster

I took an online survey, which got me to thinking about whether it would be hard to come up with something like that myself. So I went to a site and cooked up … well, not a survey, but a quiz on the vice presidents. Have fun (and give me some feedback):

Know Your Veeps

[Later: OK — one thing is clearly deficient in this approach, and I'm surprised I didn't see it before I posted the quiz: there is no immediate feedback about the right answers or the quiz taker's score. Apparently, the service I'm using — SurveyMonkey — doesn't offer those options. So to partly compensate for that, I'll put the correct answers after the jump on this page. Later, I'll post the results. ]

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Hail to the Chiefs

There was a time — starting the moment George Washington left office — that being a military heavyweight wasn’t seen as one of the big qualifications for being president. The Civil War (six) and World War II (six) produced the highest number of president veterans–most who served as generals. If there’s a pattern here — military service or expertise turning into excellence as commander-in-chief in wartime or in peacetime — it escapes me.

George Washington: Trenton was one of his greatest hits.

John Adams: Learned to be commander in chief on the job.

Thomas Jefferson: Learned on the job.

James Madison: Learned on the job–fought actual war.

James Monroe: Learned on the job.

John Quincy Adams: Learned on the job.

Andrew Jackson: Knew his way around a battlefield. (References.)

Martin Van Buren: Learned on the job.

William Henry Harrison: Did someone say ‘Tippecanoe’?

John Tyler: Learned on the job.

James K. Polk: Learned on the job. Enthusiastically.

Zachary Taylor: Soldier.

Millard Fillmore: Learned nothing on the job.

Franklin Pierce: Mexican War combat veteran.

James Buchanan: Learned on the job.

Abraham Lincoln: Learned on the job (served in Illinois militia during Blackhawk’s War).

Andrew Johnson: Learned on the job.

U.S. Grant: The Civil War brought out the best in him and the blood out of everyone else.

Rutherford B. Hayes: Civil War combat veteran.

James A. Garfield: Civil War combat veteran

Chester A. Arthur: Civil War quartermaster.

Grover Cleveland: Avoided Civil War draft by paying a substitute. Learned on the job. Twice.

Benjamin Harrison: Civil War combat veteran.

William McKinley: Civil War combat veteran.

Theodore Roosevelt: Noted equestrian with enthusiasm for Cuba.

William Howard Taft: Learned on the job.

Woodrow Wilson: Learned on the job.

Warren Harding: Learned on the job.

Calvin Coolidge: Learned on the job.

Franklin D. Roosevelt: Former assistant secretary of the Navy.

Harry S Truman: World War I combat veteran.

Dwight D. Eisenhower: Ike. Mentioned something about a “military-industrial complex.”

John F. Kennedy: PT-109.

Lyndon B. Johnson: World War II combat veteran (Army).

Richard M. Nixon: World War II, Navy; played mean game of poker.

Gerald Ford: World War II combat veteran (Navy).

Jimmy Carter: Navy nucular engineer.

Ronald Reagan: Learned on the job (warmed up dispatching National Guard to Berkeley).

G.H.W. Bush: World War II combat veteran (Navy).

Bill Clinton: Otherwise engaged during Vietnam draft. Learned on the job.

G.W. Bush: Air National Guard (1970s); carrier landing (2003).

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Today’s Time Waster

[By way of Marie:]

Blufr: I can see this getting old very fast, but it’s a semi-addictive social trivia site. I say “social” because apparently visitors submit the true/false statements that you’re asked to vote “way” or “no way” on (some of the questions are pretty lame, I admit. Mine, of course, was brilliant: Of the four assassinated U.S. presidents, only Abraham Lincoln died in Washington, D.C.” Way? Or Now way? The answer at the “read more” link below).

I said I can see this getting old. But ‘m embarrassed to say how long I spent on this and how many questions I clicked on. Ridiculous.

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Trivial by Nature

When it comes to any subject, there’s good trivia and bad trivia; or maybe not bad, but ho-hum, something that fits too easily onto a Trivial Pursuit card An example of uninspiring trivia might be: Elvis Presley died on August 16, 1977. An example of good (or at least better) trivia might involve where Elvis was when he was fatally stricken and what was he doing. (For the uninitiated, here’s the scatologist’s-eye view of the King’s passing.)

So I’ve been engaged in some bad and not-so-bad presidential trivia. It’s kind of a way to relax, I guess — or at least put part of my brain on idle (a big part, because I can’t claim any inspirations, related or unrelated, large or small, happened while I focused on this). It started with a simple question, now that Lincoln’s and Washington’s birthdays and Presidents Day have passed: In which month were the most presidents born (posted separately)?

When I start looking at a list of dates, all sorts of facts stick out and relationships suggest themselves. In presidential birth and death dates, perhaps the best-known and most striking is July 4, 1826, the day John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died; a less-mentioned coincidence is that a third president in first five, James Monroe, also died on the 4th of July, in 1831. That kind of coincidence doesn’t show up much in birth dates. Just two presidents — James K. Polk and Warren Harding — share a birthday, November 2 (start planning now).

Ronald Reagan lived longest of all the presidents, 93 years and 120 days. Gerald Ford, born July 14, 1913, could tie the record on Columbus Day this year. Herbert Hoover enjoyed — maybe endured is a better word — the longest retirement, 31 years and seven months. Ford’s in a solid second place in the retirement rankings, but two and a half years behind Hoover; Jimmy Carter, Ford’s successor is No. 4 in the retirement rankings; he’s not gaining on Ford, obviously, but he’ll move into the No. 3 spot, ahead of one-time dual longevity/retirement king John Adams, in early May. (And the shortest retirement? The aforementioned Polk, who outlived his single term by just three months.)

This is the kind of stuff they’re not teaching in our public schools.

After poring over some of the presidents’ biographical data, I did come up with a category that I’m sure someone out in the universe has happened upon but which hasn’t made it into the Wikipedia’s weirdly complete catalog of presidential trivia (see the very end of the entry President of the United States). The little seam I found to mine is represented by our current president and his predecessor: Of all the 42 men who have served as president, the two born closest together are Bush and Clinton. The list:

1. G.W. Bush (7/6/1946)-Clinton (8/19/1946): 44 days.

2. A. Johnson (12/29/1808)-Lincoln (2/12/1809): 45 days.

3. G.H.W. Bush (6/12/1924)-Carter (10/1/1924): 111 days.

4. Jackson (3/15/1767)-J.Q. Adams (7/11/1767): 118 days.

5. Grant (4/27/1822)-Hayes (10/4/1822): 160 days.

6. Nixon (1/9/1913)-Ford (7/14/1913): 186 days.

If you extend the concept to trios, here are the three closest groupings:

1. Wilson (12/28/1856)-Taft (9/15/1857)-T. Roosevelt (10/27/1858): 1 year, 9 months, 29 days.

2. Reagan (2/6/1911)-Nixon (1/9/1913)-Ford (7/14/1913): 2 years, 5 months, 11 days.

3. Arthur (10/5/1830)-Garfield (11/19/1831)-B. Harrison (8/20/1833): 2 years, 10 months, 15 days.

And at the other extreme, the chief executives born furthest apart — considering consecutive presidencies only — are:

Eisenhower (10/14/1890)-Kennedy (5/29/1917): 26 years, 5 months, 15 days.

2. G.H.W. Bush (6/12/1924)-Clinton (8/19/1946): 22 years, 2, months, 7 days.*

3. Buchanan (4/23/1791)-Lincoln (2/12/1809): 17 years, 9 months, 20 days.

4. Jackson (3/15/1767)-Van Buren (12/5/1782): 15 years, 9 months, 20 days.

5. McKinley (1/29/1843)-T. Roosevelt (10/27/1858): 15 years, 8 months, 29 days.

6. Taylor (11/29/1784)-Fillmore (1/7/1800): 15 years, 1 month, 9 days.

7. Reagan (2/6/1911)-Carter (10/1/24): 13 years, 7 months, 25 days.

No conclusions drawn from any of the above. The close birthdays show up some odd coincidences — Lincoln and Johnson, Nixon and Ford and their interrupted presidencies. The presidents born furthest apart might make a more interesting discussion. You might argue that in several cases, at least, the generational differences between the presidents played a role or reflected in some way a larger social and political upheaval that occurred at the same time (best cases for that: Buchanan-Lincoln, Kennedy-Eisenhower, McKinley-Roosevelt; worst case: Taylor-Fillmore).

That’s it. My brain’s very relaxed now.

*Added 3/5/2006 based on reader email that pointed out the difference in the first Bush’s and Clinton’s ages.

Polk-Harding Day: Early Warning

As explained elsewhere, I was noodling with White House birthdays. For your party-planning purpses — let’s get ready for Polk-Harding Day ’06! — here’s a calendar of sorts of the birthdays of the presidents:

January February March
Fillmore (7)
Nixon (9)
McKinley (29)
F.D. Roosevelt (30)
Reagan (6)
W.H. Harrison (9)
Lincoln (12)
Washington (22)
Jackson (15)
Madison (16)
Cleveland (18)
Tyler (29)
April May June
Jefferson (13)
Buchanan (23)
Grant (27)
Monroe (28)
Truman (8)
Kennedy (29)
G.H.W. Bush (12)
July August September
Coolidge (4)
G.W. Bush (6)
J. Q. Adams (11)
Ford (14)
Hoover (10)
Clinton (19)
B. Harrison (20)
L. B. Johnson (27)
Taft (15)
October November December
Carter (1)
Hayes (4)
Arthur (5)
Eisenhower (14)
T. Roosevelt (27)
J. Adams (30)
Polk (2)
Harding (2)
Garfield (19)
Pierce (23)
Taylor (24)
Van Buren (5)
Wilson (28)
A. Johnson (29)