In the previous two installments of this story, I’ve tried to shine a light on our lesser-known presidents. When I visit middle and high school students, it saddens me to learn that many of them can only name a handful of our nation’s leaders. Other than Washington, Lincoln, and a few of our recent presidents, many Americans have no idea what Millard Fillmore, James Buchanan, and Rutherford B. Hayes contributed to U.S. history. Unfortunately, the answer is often, “not much.”
President #25, William McKinley was in office at the turn of the 20th century. He annexed Hawaii, engineered a win in the Spanish-American War, and presided during a time of economic prosperity. Sadly, the pattern of a presidential assassination every twenty years continued when he was shot in New York in 1901. The nearest doctor was a gynecologist, and much like President Garfield twenty years earlier, he was probably a victim of poor medical treatment. He died eight days later.
The man who succeeded him in office is probably the first president in a half-century who is considered a familiar face these days. It helps to be depicted on Mount Rushmore with Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln. Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt walked softly, carried a big stick, and called the presidency a “bully pulpit,” meaning it provided a powerful platform for his ideas. (Some of those who have followed TR as president have had a different interpretation of the word “bully,” using that pulpit to run roughshod over those with differing opinions.)
Anyway, TR won’t get a lot of attention in this story, because he is not one of the forgotten presidents. People of any age who are unfamiliar with his accomplishments should do a little research, or read one of the many books published about him. He wasn’t perfect, but he doubled the number of America’s parks, made our food and water safer, created the Panama Canal, and was generally about the toughest guy who ever lived. Oh yeah, and that Teddy Bear you grew up with was named after him.
He was a tough act to follow, but someone had to do it. President #27 was William Howard Taft, largely remembered for being large. As in, stuck in the bathtub large. That’s a legend that’s been talked about for years, but I wouldn’t bet against it. I’ll give him this: he kept the nation out of war, which was pretty rare in those days. Still, he was trounced in his re-election campaign, capturing only eight electoral votes. He was said to be relieved, calling the White House “the loneliest place in the world.” His post-presidency career was most unusual, and very impressive. He became Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, which no other president has ever done, before or since. It should also be noted he lost 75 pounds after he left office, avoiding any other bathtub issues.
In the 1912 election, Teddy Roosevelt jumped in to run again as an independent candidate, and ended up splitting the Republican vote with Taft. That enabled Democrat Woodrow Wilson, former president of Princeton University and Governor of New Jersey to win handily. He’s another guy you don’t hear much about these days, but his two terms were quite eventful.
For starters, there was Prohibition, which made alcohol illegal, and failed miserably. That little experiment ended up creating organized crime, which has been awfully hard to get rid of. On the plus side, women finally got the right to vote during the Wilson era.
He’s probably best known for getting us into what was then known the World War. Back then, nobody knew there would be another one, so it had not yet been assigned a numeral. Our involvement was a surprise to some, because Wilson had campaigned as an anti-war candidate, and did indeed keep us out of foreign conflict during his first term. But by 1917, we were all in, with woefully underprepared soldiers. Wilson, who had never been the picture of health, suffered a debilitating stroke in 1919, and his condition was hidden from the press. Yes, things were very different then. For the final eighteen months of his presidency, the brain-damaged president was out of the public eye, and his wife Edith signed all the papers. So to be honest, we have already had a female president. It was just a well-kept secret at the time.
The next three presidents are frequently ranked near the bottom of the list. The 1920s-era White House occupants are best-remembered as crooked (Warren G. Harding), silent (Calvin Coolidge), and doing too little to stem the economic disaster that became the Great Depression (Herbert Hoover).
After twelve years with those guys, we needed a president who could lead. I’ll look at FDR and those who followed him in the next story.