He put that expertise to good use, and pushed through landmark legislative accomplishments such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Both Medicare and Medicaid also began during his administration. Had Vietnam not derailed his ambitious “Great Society” program, LBJ would probably rank alongside Franklin Delano Roosevelt as one of America’s most transformative presidents. The disastrous war in Southeast Asia and the great legislative accomplishments loom large in the public’s perceptions of LBJ. They obscure, as seen below, the lesser known nutty – and sometimes seedy – side of the man.
Lyndon Johnson liked to depict himself as a simple a Good Ole Boy. In many ways, he really was. A Good Ole Boy, that is: there was nothing simple about the smart-as-a-whip LBJ. One way the Good Ole Boy side came out was in his humor. Not subtle salon or New Yorker type quips and bon mots, but down to earth – and quite often earthy – jokes and pranks, the darker the better. One of his favorite nutty jests was to convince guests – whose numbers included important foreign dignitaries – that they were about to die.
LBJ pulled that off with his Amphicar – a West German vehicle that was the only civilian passenger amphibious automobile to ever be mass produced. About 4000 were made, and Johnson was the proud owner of a baby blue one. When LBJ visited his Texas ranch, he often invited people down to spend some time with him as his guests. While there, the host would often take them for a drive in his Amphicar – without telling them what it was. As seen below, he would then convince them that they were about to drown.
15. There’s Pranking, and There’s LBJ’s Nutty Put-People-in-Fear-of-Death Pranking
As LBJ drove guests around the Texas backcountry in his Amphicar, he would come close to a lake or pond, and suddenly pretend to lose control of the vehicle. Then, to the terrified guests’ consternation, he would drive straight into a body of water. As the car splashed into a lake and the terrified passengers screamed, and perhaps soiled their pants as their lives flashed before their eyes, Johnson would double over with laughter. As one of the practical joke’s marks described the experience: “The President, with [his secretary] Vicky McCammon in the seat alongside him and me in the back, was now driving around in a small blue car with the top down.
We reached a steep incline at the edge of the lake and the car started rolling rapidly toward the water. The President shouted, “The brakes don’t work! The brakes won’t hold! We’re going in! We’re going under!” The car splashed into the water. I started to get out. Just then the car leveled and I realized we were in a Amphicar. The President laughed. As we putted along the lake then (and throughout the evening), he teased me. “Vicky, did you see what Joe did? He didn’t give a damn about his President. He just wanted to save his own skin and get out of the car.” Then he would roar [with laughter]“. That was LBJ’s nutty humor in a nutshell.
LBJ was not the only POTUS to give his dong a nickname. In 1899, Warren G. Harding began to work his way up the political ladder. From Ohio state senator, he became a failed Republican nominee for governor, then won a 1914 election to the US Senate. Throughout most of his political career, he carried on an extramarital affair with Carrie Fulton Phillips. As historians would discover from love letters he wrote her, Harding referred to his genitals as “private chief of staff”, but more often referred to it as “Jerry”.
In one such letter, Harding wrote to Phillips: “Jerry — you recall Jerry…— came in while I was pondering your notes in glad reflection, and we talked about it… He told me to say that you are the best and darlingest in the world, and if he could have but one wish, it would be to be held in your darling embrace and be thrilled by your pink lips that convey the surpassing rapture of human touch“. The affair lasted for fifteen years, before Harding finally ended it in 1920, as he ran for president.
Warren G. Harding’s affair with Carrie Fulton Phillips was relatively ho-hum. The same could not be said about his affair with Nan Britton. She wrote a tell-all book after Harding’s death – The President’s Daughter – in which she alleged that he had fathered an illegitimate daughter upon her. Britton described salacious details that make Trump and Stormy Daniels or Clinton and Monica Lewinsky look tame. Among other things, Warren G. and Nan got it on in White House closets. In a nutty twist, Secret Service agents were posted as lookouts to turn away intruders.
Nan alleged that after she gave birth, the president paid her child support of $500 a month – a considerable sum back then. Understandably, Harding’s family rushed to defend what was left of his reputation, and denied the affair. They painted Nan Britton as a liar, and alleged that the 29th president had been infertile, and so could not have possibly fathered a child upon her. Things remained in a he-said-they-said standoff until 2015, when DNA tests concluded that Nan’s daughter, Elizabeth Ann Bleasing, was indeed Harding’s child.
The GOP has traditionally been pro-business, and Republicans have usually been reliable allies of employers in disputes with labor unions and employees. A little known fact that might seem nutty but is all too true is that the first Republican president had some outright Marxist views about labor. In his first speech as an Illinois state legislator in 1837, Abraham Lincoln stated: “These capitalists generally act harmoniously and in concert, to fleece the people“. In his first Annual Message to Congress, on December 3rd, 1861, he wrote: “Labor is prior to and independent of capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed“.
Lincoln continued: “Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration. Capital has its rights, which are as worthy of protection as any other rights. Nor is it denied that there is, and probably always will be, a relation between labor and capital producing mutual benefits. The error is in assuming that the whole labor of community exists within that relation. A few men own capital, and that few avoid labor themselves, and with their capital hire or buy another few to labor for them“.
11. It Sounds Nutty But it’s True: Abraham Lincoln Corresponded With Karl Marx
In a nutty historic twist, Abraham Lincoln’s Marxist views probably came directly from Karl Marx himself. The author of The Communist Manifesto and Das Kapital had been a prolific contributor to the New York Daily Tribune. It was the most influential Republican newspaper of the 1850s, when the GOP was founded. In 1848, the Tribune’s publisher had invited Marx to become a correspondent. Over the decade that followed, Marx, sometimes with the help of his colleague Friedrich Engels, wrote over 500 articles for the Republican newspaper.
Marx detested labor exploitation, and became a huge Lincoln fan. He cheered Honest Abe on as he wrecked slavery, the era’s most exploitative labor system. In 1864, Marx wrote a letter on behalf of the International Working Men’s Association, to congratulate Lincoln on his reelection and wish him success in the US Civil War. The president instructed the American ambassador in Britain, where Marx lived, to thank him and let him know that the United States: “derive new encouragements to persevere from the testimony of the workingmen of Europe that the national attitude is favored with their enlightened approval and earnest sympathies“.
President George Herbert Walker Bush came across as pretty bland. However, there was some spice and salacious fodder in his private life: the long-term mistresses he kept for decades. Before he became Ronald Reagan’s vice president and succeeded him in the Oval Office, Bush I’s public service life included stints as a Congressman, an ambassador, and as CIA Director. Bush’s campaign platform included a family values plank, and he was endorsed by The Moral Majority, had mistresses. In a nutty twist, throughout his decades-long political career, he kept mistresses.
Bush was not a compulsive womanizer – nowhere close to the levels of a JFK or LBJ. Instead, he maintained a few discrete relationships. His wife Barbara generally tolerated them, because he was discrete, never humiliated her, and usually carried on his affairs out of town so as not to jeopardize his marriage. But he did carry on affairs – and they tended to be long term ones. An example was one he carried out with an Italian woman, whom he kept in a New York City apartment in the 1960s.
George H. W. Bush usually kept his mistresses far away. That changed when he encountered Jennifer Fitzgerald, a 42-year-old short, blond, and pretty divorcee. She worked as an assistant to one of Gerald Ford’s aides, and Bush was smitten when he met her. In 1974, Bush was appointed ambassador to China, and he had Fitzgerald join him there as his secretary. He told friends that he chose her to act as a buffer between him and Henry Kissinger’s State Department, but few bought it. As one embassy staffer put it: “I don’t know what skills she brought to the job. She certainly couldn’t type“.
Fitzgerald arrived in Beijing on December 5th, 1974, and the next day, Bush took her for a twelve-day “diplomatic conference” in Hawaii. Unlike his previous affairs, which Barbara Bush had turned a blind eye to, the situation with Fitzgerald was more than a dalliance. As described by a close family friend: “It wasn’t just another woman. It was a woman who came to exert enormous influence over George for many, many years. … She became in essence his other wife … his office wife“. Barbara burned her love letters with Bush, which she had treasured since World War II, and went into a severe depression.
8. Luckily For Bush, the Press Didn’t Give His Affair the Clinton Treatment
George H. W. Bush stint in Beijing was brief, and after a year, President Gerald Ford asked him to become his CIA Director. Bush accepted, but only if he could bring Jennifer Fitzgerald with him as his confidential assistant. A memo in Ford’s Presidential Library, dated November 23rd, 1975, states: “Please advise me as soon as you have completed office space arrangements for George Bush and Miss Fitzgerald“. Bush travelled around the world as head of the CIA, and took Fitzgerald with him. In the meantime, Barbara Bush spiraled into a deep depression that brought her to the brink of suicide on multiple occasions. The extramarital relationship continued, even as Bush indulged in other dalliances such as an intense but brief affair with a young photographer amidst the 1980 presidential campaign.
When the Reagan-Bush ticket won in 1980, Fitzgerald was brought along as a member of the vice-presidential staff. Tongues wagged, but Bush was deaf to them, and he kept his mistress by his side throughout his eight years as vice president. When he ran for president in 1988, Bush appointed Fitzgerald as his liaison to Congress. When he won the election, he made her his chief of protocol. In what seems like nutty brazenness, it was an open secret that Bush I had a mistress in his years as vice president and president. What seems even nuttier, especially in light of how the media is nowadays, no scandal ensued. The affair finally ended after The New York Post exposed it amidst Bush’s failed 1992 reelection campaign.
7. The President Who Believed That the Center of the Earth Was Inhabited by People
Like his father, America’s second president John Adams, John Quincy Adams was a brilliant man. Before he became president, JQ Adams had been a great diplomat – perhaps America’s best diplomat ever. His accomplishments included a stint as ambassador to Russia, and service in the delegation that negotiated an end to the War of 1812. JQ Adams also served as Secretary of State, in which capacity he negotiated the acquisition of Florida, and played a key role in the creation of the Monroe Doctrine. He also served in both the US House of Representatives and the US Senate, and became one of the early major opponents of slavery.
However, while clearly an intelligent man, Adams had some blind spots. One such was his belief in the Hollow Earth Theory – a nutty theory considered ludicrous even in his own time. As the name indicates, Hollow Earth posited that our planet was not a solid rock. Instead, it was supposedly more like a ball, with concentric layers separated by empty spaces, that were probably inhabited by people. As seen below, Adams not only believed in that balderdash, but actually wanted to prove it at the taxpayers’ expense.
The Hollow Earth craze was kicked off by a charlatan named John Cleves Symmes, Jr. A veteran of the War of 1812, Symmes moved to the frontier, where he reinvented himself as a scientist and became known as the “Newton of the West”. In 1818 the Newton of the West published Symmes Circular No. 1: “I declare the earth is hollow, and habitable within; containing a number of solid concentrick spheres, one within the other, and that it is open at the poles 12 or 16 degrees; I pledge my life in support of this truth, and am ready to explore the hollow, if the world will support and aid me in the undertaking“.
Each concentric circle supposedly contained a subterranean world, all of them heated and illuminated by a sun-like object at the center of the earth. Symmes then hit the lecture circuit, and lobbied the government for an expedition to the poles, where he claimed the openings to the hollow earth’s interior were located. Educated people laughed off the idea, but his nutty theory was taken seriously enough by many. Those who bought into it included John Quincy Adams, who lent his support to the proposed Symmes expedition. Indeed, he promised to do just that in his successful 1824 presidential campaign.
John Quincy Adams, just like other believers in the Hollow Earth theory, assumed that the hollow planet’s internal concentric spheres must be inhabited by humans or humanoid beings: de facto mole men. JQ Adams was interested in the natural resources beneath the earth, and like Symmes, he wanted to establish trade with the hollow earth’s inhabitants. Backed by such heavyweights, Symmes’ expedition actually made it to the agenda of the US House of Representatives and came up for a vote. The proposal was defeated, 56 to 46.
Put another way, it meant that roughly 44% of the country’s Congressmen were willing to spend taxpayer money on a nutty quest to try and contact mole people. The president did not give up, however, and sought to get Congress to reconsider, and did what he could to gather support and resources for the expedition. However, JQ Adams served only one term, before he lost the 1828 election to Andrew Jackson. The newly elected POTUS promptly canceled the expedition and abandoned his predecessor’s attempts to reach the center of the hollow earth. Which was unsurprising: Andrew Jackson dismissed the notion that the earth was a hollow ball as nutty. Instead, Jackson believed the earth was flat.
4. The Frail Child Who Grew Up to Become a Tough POTUS
Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt (1858 – 1919), America’s 26th president, was a sickly child whose frequent bouts of ill health made his parents fear that he would never make it to adulthood. The son of a Manhattan socialite and a businessman philanthropist father, young Teddy often suffered severe nighttime asthma attacks that the best doctors could do little about. As he described the bouts in later years, they felt as if somebody had sat on his chest and tried to smother him with pillows.
However, TR was a born fighter who did not despair. Instead, he discovered a way to help him keep down the asthma and simultaneously keep up his spirits: vigorous exercise. When he was eleven-years-old, Teddy traveled with his family to Europe. As they hiked in the Alps, the frail child discovered that he could keep pace with his father. It felt pretty good, and from then on, TR adopted a regimen of strenuous exercise and outdoors activities. He also took up boxing in order to learn how to fight, after he got bullied by two older boys on a camping trip.
As a young man, Theodore Roosevelt went to Harvard, where he boxed and rowed. He was good enough at the former to make it to second place in a Harvard boxing tournament. After Harvard, he spent a year at Columbia Law School, before he dropped out in 1881 to serve in the New York State Assembly. His political career showed early promise, and he made a name for himself, especially in his efforts against corporate corruption. Then came 1884, a truly terrible year for the future president.
Valentine’s Day, February 14th, 1884, was extremely tragic for TR. That day, two days after she gave birth to their daughter Alice, his wife died. His mother died a few hours later. The only entry on his diary that day was an ‘X’, and the notation “The light has gone out of my life“. That summer, he attended the GOP National Convention in Chicago, but his candidate lost. The personal and political setbacks in quick succession caused TR to feel burned out, so he decided to quit politics and move out West. He had visited the Dakota Territory in 1883 to hunt buffalo, and fell in love with the western lifestyle. So he invested $14,000 – a significant amount in those days – to become a rancher.
Theodore Roosevelt was not just a rich East Coast dude who went out west to play cowboy. In the summer of 1884, he established the Elkhorn Ranch on the banks of the Little Missouri River in the Badlands, about 35 miles north of what is now Medora, North Dakota. He enthusiastically embraced his new occupation as a rancher, and set out to learn the ropes – literally – of the profession. He learned to ride, rope cattle, and hunt, and wrote three books about his experience. Later that year, he went on a days-long horseback ride to clear his head and take in the scenery, and eventually came across the Nolan Hotel in Mingusville, Montana.
The place looked like a seedy dive, and TR was reluctant to enter – especially after he heard a pair of gunshots coming from the bar. However, nightfall was near, and it and it was cold outside, so he went in. He saw a “shabby individual in a broad hat with a cocked gun in each hand was walking up and down the floor talking with strident profanity. He had evidently been shooting at the clock, which had two or three holes in its face“. As soon as he saw TR, who wore glasses, the bar bully hailed him as “Four Eyes”, and announced to all that “Four Eyes is going to treat!” The future president tried to play it off as a joke, but the lout followed him around. As seen below, it did not end well – for the lout.
Theodore Roosevelt described his encounter with an armed bully in a Montana bar: “As soon as he saw me he hailed me as ‘Four Eyes,’ in reference to my spectacles, and said, ‘Four Eyes is going to treat.’ I joined in the laugh and got behind the stove and sat down, thinking to escape notice. He followed me, however, and though I tried to pass it off as a jest this merely made him more offensive, and he stood leaning over me, a gun in each hand, using very foul language… In response to his reiterated command that I should set up the drinks, I said, ‘Well, if I’ve got to, I’ve got to,’ and rose, looking past him.
As I rose, I struck quick and hard with my right just to one side of the point of his jaw, hitting with my left as I straightened out, and then again with my right. He fired the guns, but I do not know whether this was merely a convulsive action of his hands, or whether he was trying to shoot at me. When he went down he struck the corner of the bar with his head… if he had moved I was about to drop on my knees; but he was senseless. I took away his guns, and the other people in the room, who were now loud in their denunciation of him, hustled him out and put him in the shed“. The next day, the humiliated loudmouth left town on a freight train.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading