22. Grover Cleveland had a secret operation while in office
Grover Cleveland served two terms as president, but they were not contiguous. Just after taking office for the second time he detected a lump in his mouth which was diagnosed as cancer. His doctors recommended removal, and with the country sliding into recession the president decided to keep the surgery secret. The president told the country that he was taking a four day trip on a friend’s yacht and during the trip the surgery was performed. A reporter had the story within a few weeks, but the White House and Cleveland issued firm denials and took steps to discredit the reporter. The truth about the surgery remained secret for more than two decades.
23. Harrison was the first to electrify the White House
Benjamin Harrison was a single term president, in office from 1889 – 1893. His voice is the earliest of the American presidents to have been recorded, a thirty six second wax cylinder recording still exists. It was Harrison who decided to have electricity installed in the White House, and the project was completed by the Edison General Electric Company. However the Edison technicians were unable to eliminate Harrison’s fear of electricity, nor that of his wife. After the electric lights were installed, the Harrisons refused to touch the light switches for fear of electrocution, often sleeping with the lights on.
24 According to some, William McKinley gave away his good luck charm just before he was shot
Following the assassination of William McKinley a story arose that the president gave away a red carnation to a little girl in the reception line as he was shaking hands with the public. According to the story McKinley habitually wore a red carnation as a good luck totem, and he kept them in a bowl on his desk in the White House to give to favored visitors. He was known to occasionally remove the carnation in his lapel and give it away, though his habit was to replace the flower as soon as he could. Years later a woman named Myrtle Ledger claimed to have been the recipient of the carnation, though the lack of contemporaneous reporting of the story makes it possibly apocryphal.
25. Theodore Roosevelt kept a menagerie at the White House
As president Teddy Roosevelt kept animals at the White House and in its outbuildings which included several dogs of different breeds, guinea pigs, other pigs, macaws and canaries, a small bear, cats, rabbits, rats, a pony, several horses, snakes, and lizards. He also kept a badger he had been given as a gift on a western trip. Roosevelt also often sojourned to the Potomac Island known as Rock Island for shooting sessions, where a probably apocryphal story claims that his targets bore the images of the Russian Tsar and other European leaders.
26. Taft was the first President known to worship the game of golf
The first man (and thus far the only man) to serve as President of the United States and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Taft was also the largest president in American history in terms of weight, topping well over 300 pounds. He did not let his girth deter him from hitting the links, playing golf at every opportunity. Taft was the first president to openly admit to playing the game; it is likely that others did before him but kept it secret from the public, fearing criticism from those believing the game consumed too much time. Taft referred to the game as “a splendid form of exercise”.
27. Woodrow Wilson was not a man known for frivolity
Woodrow Wilson was a serious, sober man of letters, educated at Davidson and Princeton, a student of history and political science. In the late 1970s and since he was been berated as both a racist and having possessed anti-Semitic views, despite having appointed Louis Brandeis, an active Zionist, to the Supreme Court, overcoming strong opposition. Wilson was also thrifty. Rather than retain groundskeepers to trim the White House lawns, Wilson had a flock of sheep kept on the property which at one point numbered four dozen head, as an economical means of keeping the grass short. The wool from the sheep was sold and the proceeds donated to the American Red Cross.
28. Warren G. Harding was a dedicated poker player
Warren G. Harding was a publisher from Ohio with a background in both state and national politics when he successfully ran for president in 1920. He didn’t so much run as stand; the candidate remained at home and delivered speeches from his front porch. His presidency is mostly remembered for scandals, cronyism, and extramarital affairs. Harding enjoyed poker games at the White House, playing often with a group of friends which became known as the Ohio Gang. The same friends led his administration into scandals, few of which were known about during his presidency. Harding died on a trip to the west while still in office after years of heavy drinking, poor diet, and lack of exercise.
29. Calvin Coolidge kept a small zoo of pets and a strange morning ritual
Among the many animals kept as pets by President Coolidge were a pygmy hippopotamus, lion cubs, a wallaby, and several other exotic animals and birds, as well as a pack of dogs, cats, and at least two raccoons, one of which found White House life not to its taste and escaped. Coolidge also enjoyed a daily scalp treatment which involved his head being massaged with petroleum jelly, often while he enjoyed his breakfast, which he habitually took while in bed. The purpose of the treatment was lost to history. After his retirement from public life the man known as Silent Cal penned his autobiography and a newspaper column he called Calvin Coolidge Says.
30 Hoover starred in America’s first long-distance television transmission
Before he became president Herbert Hoover was a highly successfully mining engineer, a self-made man who had been a member of the first graduating class of Stanford University. He became internationally famous for his humanitarian work feeding refugees in the aftermath of World War 1 (an act he would repeat following World War 2). As Secretary of Commerce under Coolidge, Hoover was the subject of the first television transmission, with him speaking in Washington DC and the image and sound sent to an audience of reporters and others in New York City. “Human genius has now destroyed the impediment of distance”, he said.
31. Franklin Roosevelt was a devoted stamp collector and loved to drive
Franklin D. Roosevelt’s devotion to his stamp collection is well known, and he was working over his collection on a December day when word of the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor reached the East Coast of the United States. FDR, despite being restricted for the most part to a wheelchair, nonetheless loved to drive his own car. Most of his driving was restricted to his estate at Hyde Park, though he did from time to time drive his own vehicle before reporters. A specially modified Ford Phaeton which allowed FDR to drive using hand controls was kept at Warm Springs, and while there the president loved to drive around the area, attempting to elude the Secret Service.
Harry Truman and his wife Bess enjoyed bourbon at the end of the work day, and Harry was known to take a setting up shot in the morning before he had his breakfast, a practice he continued almost to the day he died. He was also a devoted poker player, and during presidential trips by train, airplane, and presidential yacht the time was passed in poker games. On one trip the President was accompanied by Winston Churchill, and Truman noted that Churchill was not a particularly good player, losing steadily. During a break Truman warned the other players to go easier on the former Prime Minister, allowing him to win a hand here and there.
33. Ike was a well-known devotee of golf and bridge
Dwight Eisenhower was an accomplished athlete in his youth, excelling at baseball, football, and horseback riding. He later famously focused his athletic competiveness into the game of golf, which he played as often as he could, both as president and in retirement. He was also, as were many presidents, a lover of cards, but Ike preferred bridge over poker. Eisenhower learned the game in his youth, and during his war years in Europe it was his main source of relaxation. He continued to use the game to keep his mental faculties sharp as president, with Saturday nights at the White House set aside for bridge games with guests.
34. Kennedy was another president deluged with pets
As would be expected of an astute political operative with a highly photogenic family, JFK’s White House was another in which the press of numerous pets was visible. Several were gifts from dignitaries and foreign leaders for JFK’s daughter Caroline, among them a pony named Leprechaun, given to her by Irish President Eamon de Valera. Another was a dog by the name of Pushinka. The dog was a puppy of the Soviet space dog Strelka, which had orbited the earth in 1960. Pushinka later had pups of her own, fathered by Kennedy’s dog Charlie, and which the president referred to as pupniks.
35. LBJ didn’t let calls of nature interrupt meetings
Lyndon Johnson was known to reach out during meals, with hands, fork, or spoon, and help himself to the contents of one of his fellow diner’s plates, often claiming a food which was outside of the president’s dietary restrictions. Even more startling to staffers and others, when he felt the call of nature during a meeting or while giving dictation, he would enter a nearby bathroom, leave the door open, and continued to conduct business while he did his business. He was known to insist that aides accompany him into the bathroom at times, whether he required the use of a stall or a urinal, in order to not interrupt the business of government.
36. Nixon preferred private recreation over public appearances
Richard Nixon was known for his lack of social skills, a difficult failing for a career politician to overcome. He was famously poor at small talk and the routine interchange of conversation. For recreation he preferred what could be performed privately. He played no less than five musical instruments, learning from his aunt in his youth, and after discovering his talent could be a political asset he performed on piano before television cameras. For physical exercise he preferred bowling, using the alleys at the Old Executive Office building before installing a single alley in the White House basement, beneath the North Portico.
37. Gerald Ford could have played professional football
During his presidency Gerald Ford developed a reputation for stumbling down stairs and falling off of sidewalks. LBJ often commented that Ford had played too much football without a helmet. Ford was an athlete for most of his life, an avid skier and golfer when serving as president. In his youth, the former Michigan football player received offers from the Green Bay Packers and the Detroit Lions, though the recent graduate chose Yale Law School instead. Also in his youth, Ford worked briefly as a male model, appearing on the cover of the April, 1942 edition of Cosmopolitan.
38. Jimmy Carter was attacked by a rabbit and reported a UFO
President Carter was on a fishing trip after which he later told staffers that a rabbit swam towards his boat, and that he had had to use an oar to roil the water and fend off the attack. The staff thought he was kidding them until footage from a White House photographer confirmed the incident. Earlier, when serving as governor of Georgia in 1969, Carter reported seeing a UFO in the night sky over Leary, Georgia. Carter later explained the he called it a UFO because it was unexplained, but that his training in engineering and physics precluded him calling it alien in nature.
In May of 1988 White House spokesman Marvin Fitzwater confirmed to the press that Ron and Nancy Reagan used astrology and readings in preparing their schedules and for other activities. According to Reagan’s former Chief of Staff Donald Regan, the first couple consulted with a San Francisco based astrologer before making all major decisions. Regan did not identify the astrologer but it wasn’t long before the press did, and Reagan’s political opponents had a field day with the news, which came following the revealing of theIran-Contra Affair. Later biographers wrote that the Reagan’s faith in astrology was a long-standing affair.
40. George H. W. Bush hated being trapped in the White House
The first president Bush was known to be an affable man according to many who met him. On occasion, the President would join a White House tour, without fanfare, until one of the other tourists spotted him. The physically active president didn’t care for being stuck in the White House and journeyed to Camp David as frequently as possible during his single term presidency. Few modern presidents more openly expressed their displeasure for entrapment within the bubble of security and filtered information which are characteristics of the modern presidency.
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