Tuesday, June 30, 2015

How Ronald Reagan Destroyed My First Celebrity Crush

There's a movie called FDR: American Badass. It stars Barry Bostwick (remember that name) as Franklin Roosevelt, who contracts polio from a werewolf bite, then has to go to war (personally) to fight the werewolves running the Axis countries. I had planned on writing a review of it--and I probably still will--but while I was gathering my thoughts, I realized I had another, more important story to tell. It's tangentially related to FDR: American Badass, but mostly it's a strange and somewhat embarrassing story from my childhood, encompassing celebrity crushes, questionable parenting, and two other presidents.

Let me set the scene: The year was 1984. Michael Jackson's hair caught on fire. O. J. Simpson starred in a Hertz commercial. Who you gonna call? Ghostbusters, of course. A more elusive question: Where's the beef?

In the spring of 1984 I was six years old, and even back then I loved presidents and American history. Therefore I was overwhelmingly excited when my parents let me stay up late to watch all three nights of a miniseries about George Washington. My parents probably thought, "How cool is our kid? The highlight of her life is that she gets to watch a show about our first president!" They probably felt very smug.

That feeling likely didn't last long, because that miniseries caused me to fall in love, not with George Washington but with the actor who played him: Barry Bostwick. "How weird is our kid?" my parents probably wondered. "Why can't she have a crush on Michael Jackson like everyone else?"

At the time, Barry Bostwick was nearly 40 years old (though he looked younger) and therefore not what one would generally consider a typical teen heartthrob, but something about his portrayal of a young Washington--tall, slender, pony tail flying out behind him as he galloped on his horse--really did it for me.

I suspect I must have talked about Barry Bostwick a lot over the next few days, because I remember my dad growing a little exasperated. One afternoon he and I were running errands and he needed to make a quick stop somewhere. He left me in the car--as parents were known to do back then--but before he shut the door he tossed me a section of the Akron Beacon Journal. "There," he said. "That's what Barry Bostwick really looks like."

I looked down in horror at the photo on the page. Instead of the tall, trim, dashing man from the miniseries, I found a paunchy, ugly, shirtless old man in swimming trunks, walking along a beach. I stared and stared in disbelief. What had happened to Barry Bostwick? How could he have let himself go like that? And so quickly!

My 6-year-old self either couldn't read the caption or didn't know to look for one. My 6-year-old self thought the guy in the photo looked a lot like then-president Ronald Reagan, but my 6-year-old self also knew my dad wouldn't lie to me. I resigned myself to the fact that Barry Bostwick was not as appealing as I had thought.

Heartbroken over truth about my love, I gave up on Barry. I don't think I ever spoke of him again.

In retrospect, I don't know what my dad was thinking. Maybe he was joking with me. Maybe he was being metaphorical--not trying to imply that the photo actually was Barry Bostwick, but that, at least compared to a 6-year-old, he was indeed an old man. Maybe he was employing an untested but apparently effective parenting strategy to help disabuse young children of unattainable childhood crushes.  In any case, I can almost guarantee my father will have no recollection of this even happening, but I'm positive it did.

Out of curiosity and to make this post more complete, I tried to find photos of Ronald Reagan on a beach. (If you ever want to feel really disgusting about yourself, google: Ronald Reagan shirtless beach.) I found some photos--and they looked like the one I remember from that fateful day when my father slammed the door on Barry Bostwick--but I couldn't be sure because I couldn't find dates on them. Then I looked up when the Washington miniseries ran (April 8, 1984) and googled: Ronald Reagan beach April 1984.


I don't remember Nancy being in the photo I saw, but maybe she was cropped out, or maybe my brain was too busy processing my disappointment to notice or care about Barry's older female companion.

Soon I moved on to my next celebrity crush: Boy George.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Doing Taft Proud in Cincinnati

I grew up in Ohio, but until last week I had never been to Cincinnati. See, I'm from Northeast Ohio, which meant I always viewed Cincinnati as "other." As "south." As "the Reds." But since William Howard Taft is one of my favorite presidents, and since his National Presidential Site is there, a trip to Cincinnati became a necessity--and I'm really glad it did, because that's a fun town!

I had intended for this to be a review of just the Taft site, but I'm going to include all the other things we did there, too. It turns out Cincinnati has some great food, and if Taft were alive today, I'm sure he'd enjoy it as much as we did.

First, the Presidential Site. It's not as flashy as Lincoln's or as large as Hoover's (two sites we've been to this year), but it was quaint and informative. When we first got there, we walked past the visitor's center so we could take some photos with the props we'd brought. Yes, you read that correctly. I brought my Taft bobblehead (courtesy of my friend Sunny!) and my daughter Anna brought the Andy Warhol-inspired portrait she made for Presidents Day. A concerned park ranger, thinking we were lost, came over to make sure we knew where the entrance was.

Once we got our portrait and bobblehead tucked back into the car, we headed into the house for an introductory video. Now, we've encountered many nice park rangers (like the ones who helped us when my baby threw up all over Abraham Lincoln's sidewalk--I'll have to blog about that), but our ranger at Taft's house was especially great. His name was Jason, and he was knowledgable, passionate, and funny. We loved him, and I think he might have loved us, too.

When Jason asked if we were stopping by on our way to our destination, I said this was our destination. A bit surprised, he asked, "Taft or Cincinnati?" I said Taft, and he just about fell over. I don't think he'd ever heard that before.

After the video, he showed us around the house. Very little of it is original, as it had been turned into apartments at one point. But it has been restored, and they have some of the family's furniture in there now. The kids got to play with some period toys, which was nice. Usually there's a strict hands-off policy in historic houses, so it was fun for them to get to do something. The upper level had displays we could browse on our own.

I was perplexed there was no information on the Billy Possum. Still, though, I was glad to have been able to visit Taft's home. We bid Jason adieu and headed off to lunch.

This was the first of the amazing restaurants we'd visit in Cincinnati. (We'd had Cincinnati chili the night before, and it was okay, but not drool-worthy.) Melt Eclectic Cafe, on the other hand, was drool-worthy. This place was featured on Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives, and if all the places Guy goes to are as good as this one, I'll definitely seek them out. Mr. Presidentressor and I split an Artichoke Melt and a Verde Chicken sandwich, and both of them were the kinds of things you want to savor forever and never finish.

When we did finish, though, we headed over to the Cincinnati Museum of Natural History. Nothing puts me to sleep faster than natural history, but the kids wanted to go and we got free admission thanks to our Museum of Science and Industry membership, so we went. It was actually a pretty good museum. My eyes did glaze over a few times, but there were enough dead birds to keep me interested. What I really loved, though, was the building the museum was housed in. There's a whole complex of museums inside a fantastic art-deco train station from the 1930s. I could have stood there for hours just staring at the architecture and lettering. Ironically, I have no photos of it. I figured I probably couldn't do it justice, so I didn't try.

Following the museum, we went to Graeter's for ice cream. Although this was our first time in Cincinnati, it wasn't the first time we'd had the ice cream. Many years ago, one of Mr. Presidentressor's friends sent him a case of Graeter's ice cream. Mr. Presidentressor, being the nice guy he is, decided he'd just bring home one pint and would distribute the rest to his co-workers. He let them choose, of course, and at the end of the evening he came home with...a pint of vanilla. Yay. In Cincinnati, though, I had Black Raspberry Chocolate Chip, and it was outstanding.

Then that evening, we went to Eli's Barbeque, where we had some of the best pulled pork we've ever eaten. Great ribs and jalapeƱo cornbread, too.

The next day we went to the American Sign Museum. Initially I thought this would be a chintzy roadside attraction. (We're a big fan of chintzy roadside attractions, so I don't say that with derision. I just wasn't expecting much.) This place is amazing, though!  It's anything but chintzy. It is a legitimate, honest-to-goodness, entertaining-yet-educational museum. We wound up spending three hours there! The first hour we looked around at all the signs, including one Mr. Presidentressor recognized from SoCal.

The second hour or so was spent on a tour led by the museum's founder. I didn't think the tour would tell us anything we hadn't already seen by walking around, but I was wrong again. This guy is incredibly knowledgable about signs, having been in the business his whole life. (His great-grandfather founded a trade publication for sign-makers, and the magazine is still in the family.) There's so much I never knew--and never thought to think about--regarding signs. And as he said at one point in the tour, the museum isn't just about the history of signs; it's about the history of the United States as told through signs, and that's so true.

Finally, we were able to go into the adjacent-but-separate neon shop, where we received a demonstration about bending tubing and lighting signs with different gases. The kids loved that! I highly recommend the Sign Museum to anyone in, near, or passing through the Cincinnati area. I can't say enough good things about it.

Our final meal in Cincinnati was at Tom + Chee, a grilled cheese restaurant. They've expanded beyond Cincinnati, but not into Chicago yet. I had a tomato-y, garlicky grilled cheese with creamy tomato-basil soup, and it was fantastic. The grilled cheese donuts were a fun novelty for dessert, but not something I'd get regularly.

So what did we learn? We learned a lot about signs. We learned that the park rangers at the Taft home really want people to know that William Howard Taft did not get stuck in a bathtub (and they're impressed when you already know that). We learned that Cincinnati has some great food and some funky little neighborhoods. I think Taft would have enjoyed the barbeque.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Separated at Birth, parts 5 and 6

I promised you two presidents who look like Sam the Eagle. Which do you think resembles him more? Warren G. Harding or William McKinley?

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Book Review: The Harding Affair

When we think of lecherous presidents, Bill Clinton might jump to mind before, say, Warren G. Harding, but perhaps it shouldn't be that way. Warren might or might not have been quite the playboy he was made out to be (and trust me--he was made out to be one), but one thing is certain: He had an ongoing affair with his friend's wife before and during his tenure as a US senator from Ohio.

Oh, a powerful, charismatic man having an affair? Yawn. But what if his mistress were also a German sympathizer and potential enemy spy in the time leading up to and encompassing World War I? Could that influence his votes on war-related matters? Could he knowingly or unwittingly furnish her with information? And when the feds got wind of the whole thing, how would it impact his presidential campaign? Now we're talking.

I recently finished reading The Harding Affair: Love and Espionage During the Great War by James David Robenalt. I started reading it a couple months ago, but honestly, the book was slow-going, especially at first. You'd think a story like this would be full of passion and intrigue, but really it wasn't--at least not at first. Warren G. Harding was seriously the most boring adulterer ever. I slogged through the first half of the book, forcing myself to keep reading only because I'm kind of anal about having to finish books that I start. I'm glad I kept at it, though, because things eventually picked up about halfway through. (It took me two months to read the first half, and two days to read the second half.)

About a year ago there was some media buzz about Harding's love letters finally being made public, and how they were "steamy" and "NSFW." Well, the author of this book had gotten his hands on those letters several years ago and used them for the basis of this book. Out of thousands of pages of letters, the few lines that got media attention were really the only steamy ones. The vast majority of the correspondence seems to have been redundant and kind of obsessive. I wound up greatly disliking Harding and his mistress--not because they were committing adultery but because they were just so bad at it.

But back to the story. So Harding and his wife were friends with a couple named Jim and Carrie Phillips. Carrie, according to Harding, was a gorgeous, intelligent, intriguing woman, and the two of them "courted" for three years before they consummated their relationship. (Harding seems to make a big deal about this.) Their affair would last for years.

Carrie Phillips was an American of German descent, and she and her daughter Isabelle lived for a while in Germany in the time leading up to World War I. She and Warren kept in close contact during that period, and he hated that she was so far away. She wasn't thrilled with the idea of Harding running for senator (and even less thrilled later on when he considered running for president). She also hated Harding's wife Florence, and loathed when Harding actually spent time with her.

We don't get to hear much of Carrie's voice from these letters because they're mostly ones that Harding sent to her, although he does often quote parts of her letters in his replies, or alludes to things that she said. Based on his letters, Carrie comes across as a jealous, manipulative person who often tried to upset him by saying hurtful things and suggesting that she wanted to take up with other men.

Most of his letters lament that she doesn't love him as much as he loves her, but he also continuously begs her to meet him, and he is constantly mentioning past encounters.

See what I mean? I wanted to reach through time and shake both of them by the shoulders and tell them to move on.

Anyway, when Carrie and daughter Isabelle came back from Germany, World War I was brewing and tensions were high. Although America managed to mostly stay out of it at first, eventually it became apparent that the United States would have to do something, and that something was likely to be war. As a senator, Warren G. Harding would be involved in voting on a declaration of war or other measures the United States might take.

Things got tense between Warren and Carrie at that point. Actually, they were already tense, what with Carrie snubbing him all the time, but they were even more tense now that she was adamantly opposed to war with Germany and Harding was leaning strongly the other way.

That's when things got interesting. Harding was so obsessed with this woman, I wouldn't have been surprised if he had voted against the war to please her. Instead, he actually grew a spine and voted in favor of the war despite knowing it would tick her off.

Now, the US got a little panicky about espionage (and free speech) during this time, and anyone of German descent or anyone who spoke critically about the war was viewed suspiciously, at best. Carrie was outspoken in her opposition to the war, as was her daughter Isabelle, who had been schooled in Germany. Isabelle was also engaged to (or nearly engaged to) an American of German descent whose family likely included German spies. (One of these people was a baroness--an American who had married a German baron--who cavorted with young military recruits and who was found to be carrying an obvious code about US ship deployment.) This caused Carrie's family to come under scrutiny by the agency that would eventually become the FBI. Carrie and Isabelle had also vacationed for an extended period of time near a new military cantonment on the east coast, although the government seemed to not know or not care about that. In addition, she and Isabelle were living lavishly and spending far more money than husband Jim earned, raising suspicion that she was being paid for secret intelligence.

Investigators asked around about Carrie in her and Warren's hometown of Marion, Ohio. Everyone seemed to have suspicions about her, and everyone also seemed to know about her affair with Harding. The government agents felt it was possible she was using Harding for information she was then passing on to Germany.

Back in the Washington, someone alerted Harding that Carrie was under investigation and surveillance, and he understandably freaked out. It would look really bad if word got out that a US senator were having an affair with a potential enemy spy while the country was at war.

The part I can't get over, though, is that he continued to write to her--love letters and everything--and he continued to rendezvous with her even once they were both aware she was being monitored. That, my friends, takes balls. Or stupidity. Or possibly both.

Then Germany lost the war, and Carrie turned bitter. I mean, more so than she had been before. That's also around the time Harding announced his candidacy for president. Like any levelheaded person, Carrie decided to extort money from him. She would receive $5,000 per year in exchange for her silence. The book seems to indicate that it was Harding paying the money, but I've read elsewhere that the Republican National Committee is the body that came to an agreement with her, paying her stipend and also for trips to Europe.

A fun side story to this whole thing is the tale of Nan Britton. She was a young lady (apparently friends with Carrie's daughter Isabelle) who claims to have also had an affair with Harding. She wrote a tell-all book a few years after Harding's death alleging that Harding fathered her child. The book was a huge sensation when it was published in 1927, and Harding obviously wasn't around to refute anything.

The love letters Harding sent Carrie give some insight into the veracity (or lack thereof) of Nan's claims. Nan's story puts Harding in certain places and times that are corroborated by his letters to Carrie. But it also seems unlikely that Nan would have been with him in those places, or at least not to the extent she alleges. (It might be true that he went from Cleveland to New York to Washington in three days, but given that tight schedule, would he have had time for leisurely strolls through the park with his new young lover?) Author Robenalt suspects that Nan might have had access to Carrie's letters and might have used them to help fabricate or bolster her story. It's still not clear whether or not Harding and Britton had an affair, or to what extent if they did.

Another mystery is why the story of Harding's affair with Carrie, especially as a German sympathizer and possible spy, never came to light during his presidential campaign. Carrie had her hush money, but there were people in the US government (specifically in the Wilson administration, of which Harding was quite critical) who had this information and didn't use it. It's not clear whether it was some kind of political motivation, or perhaps money or incompetence that kept them quiet.

Harding won the election but served only half his term before he died of a heart attack. Some rumors claim that his wife conspired with his doctor to poison him. That's kind of understandable and makes for a much better story, but probably isn't true. His short presidency was riddled with scandals, which might not be much of a surprise in retrospect, though to be fair, he wasn't directly involved in Teapot Dome. Today Harding is usually considered one of America's worst presidents.

Last year during the media frenzy over the release of the love letters, some people speculated that the letters would actually help Harding's image by making him seem more human. The letters definitely do give us better insight into Harding's personality, but I'm not sure the end result was overwhelmingly positive.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Awesome Possum

I love this story because it involves two of my favorite presidents: Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft. It's also just a really great story.

(Before we begin, it should be noted that the animal we're actually talking about is an opossum. Possums are Australian. But for the purposes of this post, we'll call them "possums" because that's what they're known as, even if it's technically incorrect.)

Now, everyone is familiar with the teddy bear, but how many people are familiar with the Billy Possum?

You might know that the teddy bear got its name thanks to Theodore Roosevelt (who, by the way, disliked being called "Teddy"). There are various and conflicting stories about how the stuffed bear came to be popular. In some versions of the story, it's because Roosevelt took a bear's life, in others it's because he spared a bear's life, and in still others it's because he didn't encounter any bears at all. One of the stories originates in Mississippi; some in Colorado. The Mississippi story seems to be the most widely accepted and documented version. Basically, TR was out hunting and decided to spare a female bear's life. A cartoonist depicted the incident in a newspaper, and from that touching story and adorable drawing, the "teddy bear" was born.

(Incidentally, I bought a Teddy Bear from a Colorado hotel that claims to be the site at which the teddy bear was really born, but considering the hotel itself has at least three different stories about how the bear came to be, I'm reluctantly inclined to believe the Mississippi version. At least I got a bear with a vest and wire-rimmed glasses from it.)

Anyway, suddenly teddy bears were all the rage, and 100 years later, they still are.

So what's the deal with the Billy Possum?

It seemed logical at the time: If children loved playing with an animal associated with President Roosevelt, surely they'd also love an animal associated with President Taft. Unfortunately, there were no touching stories about William Howard Taft sparing a bear's life, so promoters chose the next best thing: a meal of possum and sweet potatoes that Taft enjoyed while campaigning in the south.

Several companies tried to capitalize on what they assumed would be a flood of requests for Billy Possums, but despite their best efforts, the Billy Possum never took off.

This podcast (presented here on YouTube, complete with Ken Burns-style photography) gives three possible explanations for why the Billy Possum fizzled.

Their reasons are:

1) Possums are scary, ugly creatures.
I'm not buying this explanation. Possums are actually adorable. Yes, they're horrid creatures and you wouldn't want one in your backyard, but the same can be said of bears.

2) Mechanical toys were becoming popular, so why would someone want a floppy possum?
Maybe true, but why not make a mechanical possum? (Also, "Floppy Possum" would make an amazing name for a band.)

3) The Billy Possum didn't have a heartwarming story attached to it.
This one is definitely true. Roosevelt sparing the life of a helpless bear is certainly a more endearing image than someone chowing down on possum. (As the podcast mentions, though, Roosevelt later had one of his fellow hunters kill the bear instead. And then they ate it. With a side of possum. For real!)

What the podcast touches on but doesn't emphasize enough, in my opinion, is that it really came down to the men themselves. Roosevelt was a larger-than-life being bursting with charisma. People idolized and admired him. Taft was kind of...a wallflower. (Even that isn't completely accurate, because Taft was supposedly quite personable and friendly, but he certainly didn't have Roosevelt's public persona.) If someone had made a possum to commemorate Roosevelt's eating of one, we'd probably still be cuddling with Teddy Possums today.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Benjamin Harrison: The Invisible President

You can break the presidents into two categories: Those people know and those they don't. Maybe there's a third, middle-ground category. I don't know. But if you were to send Jay Leno out onto the street to talk with people about presidents, they would name Washington, Lincoln, Kennedy, etc., then they would scratch their heads when confronted with John Tyler, Franklin Pierce, and Chester Arthur.

Benjamin Harrison falls into that second category of relative obscurity, and I can understand that. What I don't understand is why I have a hard time remembering him. I can name all the presidents--in order--including Harrison, so it's not like I don't know he existed. He's William Henry Harrison's grandson. He signed the Sherman Antitrust Act. He was the guy who was president between the two terms of Grover Cleveland.

I know these things. And yet Benjamin Harrison is invisible to me, and I can't figure out why.

See, each president triggers some kind of synapse in my brain. Maybe that's not the right term, but my brain registers a certain familiarity with each one, and each of them has some little nugget of information that pops to mind when I think about them, usually independent of anything else I know about them and independent of anything significant they actually accomplished during their presidencies. Some examples for the lesser-known presidents:

Calvin Coolidge: He was quiet.
Zachary Taylor: Ate a bunch of cherries and died. (We also share a birthday!)
James Garfield: He was assassinated.
James Buchanan: He's the gay one.
Millard Fillmore: His name is Millard Fillmore.
Martin Van Buren: He was on an episode of The Monkees.

So, I'll think of Zachary Taylor, I'll think "Cherries!" and the "Zachary Taylor" part of my brain will light up.

But I don't have a "nugget" for Benjamin Harrison, despite the fact that I listed several nuggets up above. Isn't it enough to be sandwiched between Grover Cleveland? Shouldn't that be his nugget? But it's not. He's nuggetless and I was born without the portion of the brain that processes Benjamin Harrison.

Know what else is curious? I'm hoping to take a few little trips with the family this summer, and of course my focus is on presidential sites and museums. So I've been thinking about Grant's home in St. Louis (about five hours away), the Truman museum in Independence, MO (about eight hours away), Eisenhower in Kansas (nine hours away), Taft in Cincinnati (five hours away), and Gerald Ford in Michigan (about four hours away). And yet my eyes and mind always skim over that other presidential site that's just four hours from here: Benjamin Harrison's.

If anyone has ideas for overcoming my Benjamin Harrison deficiency, leave a comment! I suspect no one is actually reading this, so leave a comment even if it has nothing to do with Benjamin Harrison. In fact, leave a comment especially if it has nothing to do with him.

Monday, June 8, 2015

My Favorite Presidents

You'd think "Who's your favorite president?" is something I get asked a lot, but it isn't. Mostly people ask "Why presidents?" in the same incredulous tone they use when asking why I moved from Southern California to Northern Illinois.

So, you didn't ask but I'm going to answer anyway, about my favorite president at least. (As for why the obsession, I have no answer. As for the California-Illinois thing, that's a discussion for another day.)

The truth is that I have a few favorites. In no particular order, they are:

Abraham Lincoln
This one seems kind of obvious. When people discuss the greatest presidents, Lincoln is always at or near the top, although I don't see how he can ever be rated lower than number one. Abraham Lincoln is like Babe Ruth. Babe Ruth is the greatest baseball player of all time. Not Mantle, not Mays, not Williams, not DiMaggio. It's Ruth. And it's Lincoln. It just is.

That's not to say that "the best" always has to be "the favorite" (Babe Ruth isn't my favorite baseball player), but Lincoln is definitely part of the three-way tie for my favorite.

Theodore Roosevelt
I'm a little conflicted on TR's presidency because I'm not just a fan of presidents; I'm also a fan of turn-of-the-century business moguls. (I totally need to make another blog called RobberBaroness.com.) Teddy as Trust-Buster caused some of my favorite historical figures to be pitted against one another, and that's uncomfortable but also kind of awesome. He was more hawkish than I'd like, but his administration did result in several important reforms.

More than anything, though, he was a fascinating human being. The guy taxidermied his own animals as a kid. He wrote several books, including a history of the War of 1812, just for fun. He overcame severe asthma to become a star athlete, and was partially blinded in one eye while boxing...when he was president. And there was the whole Rough Rider thing. And he was president. And so very, very, very much more. 

The guy was truly the most interesting man in the world. Wait, I feel a meme coming on.

There we go.

William Howard Taft
Remember I said that "favorite" and "best" don't always align? No one will ever accuse Taft of being among the greatest presidents, and it's not Taft's presidency that landed him on this list. Instead, it's because of his character, and also because I've always felt bad for him. Everyone knows he's the "fat guy," but most people don't know he was also Chief Justice of the Supreme Court (after he was president). Supreme Court Justice is the role he always aspired to, and he sort of got thrust into the whole presidential thing against his will. He didn't like acting as a politician and he didn't want to be president. In many ways, he was too principled to succeed in politics, which is probably why he didn't.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Separated at Birth, part 4

In honor of last week's visit to the Herbert Hoover Presidential Museum, it's Herbert Hoover and Orson Welles:

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Hoover with a Side of Reagan

A few months ago we passed through West Branch, Iowa, on our way to California. I wanted to stop at the Herbert Hoover National Historic Site, but it was -14 that day, and the site includes several small buildings located outdoors. Instead I decided it would make a great day trip sometime when the weather was warmer, and that's how we ended up there a couple days ago.

The site consists of a visitor's center, a museum, Hoover's birthplace cottage, a blacksmith shop like the one his father had, a Quaker/Friends meetinghouse, a schoolhouse, a statue of Isis, a tallgrass prairie, and his (and First Lady Lou's) gravesite. The only building that requires a fee is the museum, which was the least exciting part for the kids, but we dragged them to it anyway.

The site has a Junior Ranger program, which we're big fans of at National Parks and Sites. Kids visit different parts of the complex and complete activities in a booklet. When they're done they're named Junior Park Rangers and receive a badge and/or patch. (In the case of the Hoover site, they received both! They also got nice full-sized Hoover pencils, a nice change from the tiny golf pencils we've gotten at other National Parks.)

We were there on a Thursday before school let out, so we had the entire place almost entirely to ourselves. Other than employees, I think we spotted five other people the whole time.

I had been to the museum once before, but that was 20 years ago so it was nice to "catch up" with Herbert again.

Most people think of him (if they think of him at all) as the guy who caused the Great Depression, but it wasn't his fault; he's just the one who got stuck holding the bag. Historians can debate for hours whether Hoover did enough to help fix the problem, whether his policies (which involved indirect aid rather than direct funding) would have eventually worked, whether FDR's policies are what saved the county, whether they made things worse, whether he just got "lucky," etc. But regardless, Hoover is often unfairly demonized as uncaring when nothing could be further from the truth. He was a lifelong humanitarian who cared deeply about people within the country and abroad.

We didn't have as much time at the museum as I would have liked. We spent a long time exploring the other buildings beforehand, plus our arrival in West Branch had been delayed by at least an hour due to a major crash that shut down Interstate 80. We did get to absorb most of it, though.

On the way back we needed to stop for dinner so we pulled off in Dixon, Illinois, location of Ronald Reagan's boyhood home. We had dinner then drove by the house. It was too late to go in, but we took a couple pictures of the outside and also snapped a few pics with the statue of Reagan holding a handful of corn.

We hadn't intended to see two presidential houses that day, but it worked out well. (One of the benefits of living in the Midwest is that there are many presidential sites within a day's drive. I hope to hit several more this summer.)

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Book Review: The Remarkable Millard Fillmore

Millard Fillmore, despite having an awesome name, is not one of my favorite presidents. I'd say he's probably no one's favorite president. (I sort of hope to get a bunch of hate mail from Fillmore fans now.) If I had a biography of every president sitting in front of me and needed to put them into a reading queue, Fillmore's would likely be somewhere around #40. And yet I did read a biography on him recently. Kind of.

The Remarkable Millard Fillmore by George Pendle is a biography in the sense that it contains some accurate biographical information. It also contains a lot of information that isn't true, but makes Fillmore seem more interesting than he really was.

The premise of the book is hilarious. In the preface, the author explains how he was incessantly mocked at the Biographer's Club for wanting to write about such an unremarkable subject. But he was lucky enough to come across several handwritten notebooks that Fillmore had left, which had never before been seen by a scholar. The rest is history...ish.

It turns out Fillmore met an incredible number of famous people and inadvertently caused (or failed to notice) some of the most important events of his day, like when he triggered the Panic of 1837 while trying to escape an enraged Martin Van Buren. He also housed a young Edgar Allan Poe, who was present when Andrew Jackson challenged Fillmore to a duel. (It was also Fillmore who suggested Poe write a poem about a bird.) There are plenty of other fascinating people and adventures along the way, many of which are more important than the ones I've mentioned here, but I don't want to give away any spoilers. But most of them involve Fillmore acting as an unsuspecting halfwit.

The book does get a little dry in some places. I guess even satire can't make Millard Fillmore that interesting, but for the most part it's an entertaining read. (There are some especially amusing gems in the footnotes.) What makes the book work is that it's written so seriously. Unlike more slapstick and obvious parodies, this one is more nuanced. The Remarkable Millard Fillmore reads exactly like a scholarly biography that just happens to involve some completely implausible scenarios.

The end of the book does include notes detailing parts of Fillmore's story that really did happen. (Or, rather, events that can be corroborated by other sources, but don't necessarily preclude the additional events the author claims happened.)

The best part isn't even the book itself; it's the 1-star reviews on Amazon. So many people complain that they were expecting a serious work of nonfiction and instead were duped into buying a piece of satire. If it weren't for the cover photo--which shows Millard Fillmore sitting on a unicorn--their complaints would be valid. (I do have a review there, too, which is basically a shorter version of this post. I didn't plagiarize anyone but myself.)

Did this book inspire me to read an actual biography of Millard Fillmore? No, I'm good. But it did make me regret not having come up with the idea of writing a fake presidential biography.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Separated at Birth, part 1

I promised irreverence, and here it is. Some of you might remember when I posted these on Facebook, but that was two years ago, so really it's time to revisit them anyway.

First up: Franklin Pierce and Snape:
Pierce/snape photo image.jpg5_zpsfjwwb6q8.jpg

Welcome to Presidentress

Hello! Welcome to my blog!

You may be asking: What is this blog all about? Well, it's about presidential stuff. Some of it will be serious; a lot of it won't be. There will probably be some crafts. I promise there will be president-themed Christmas carols.

My main purpose in starting this blog is to expand the reach of my occasional yet fascinating president-related Facebook posts. After all, why should my Facebook friends be the only people who see my "separated at birth" photos of presidents and other famous people/creatures? (Sam the Eagle is the spitting image of TWO presidents! Stay tuned to find out which ones! Or just look at some photos of the presidents and you can probably figure it out.)

Don't worry (or, alternately, be warned): It's not all fun and games. Sometimes I post serious, pensive things, like how the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum has made me cry three times.

What makes me qualified to post about presidential miscellany? Nothing, really, but this is America, where everyone gets a say! I do have a BA in American History, and a stronger-than-average obsession with political leaders of yore. So there's that.

And why the name "Presidentress"? The reasons are threefold:

1) It just kinda works.

2) When her husband was elected president, First Lady Julia Tyler decided that she wanted to be known as Mrs. Presidentress. After her husband left office, she wanted to be known as Mrs. Ex-Presidentress. That just seems pretty badass, and I wanted to honor it.

3) At some point, this country will probably have a female president. And inevitably, someone trying to be "cute" or, more likely, condescending will refer to her as "Presidentress," and I figure that'll drive traffic to this site.

(Oh, and the "star-spangled" bit in the tagline? Totally stole that from Stephen Colbert.)

That's the introduction. Now kick back and enjoy!