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President's Day

Aired February 16, 2004 - 13:42   ET


MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: All right. With this being presidents' day it seems like a good time to test your knowledge of presidential history. Do you know who ran for the White House without telling his wife? Or which president didn't know how to read until his wife taught him?
Presidential Historian Rick Shenkman is in Seattle, Washington. Has some answers for us. You'll be a "Jeopardy!" superstar if you listen up. Good to have you with us, Professor Shenkman.


O'BRIEN: All right. We're going to go chronologically. And hopefully chronologically.

Let's begin were the president you may or may not know much about, William Henry Harrison. What is interesting about him?

SHENKMAN: Well he's known to Americans as "Tippy Canoe" because he won the battle of Tippy Canoe against Tecumseh...

O'BRIEN: And Tyler, too, right, was their slogan. Right?

SHENKMAN: That's right. Tippy Canoe and Tyler, too.

He is famous for serving the shortest time, one month, and delivering the longest inaugural address, something like two hours and 45 minutes.

O'BRIEN: So the speech to tenure ratio was really messed up on that one, right?

SHENKMAN: Yes, he had a prediction in his inaugural that he wouldn't serve a second term. He was right.

O'BRIEN: Boy, was he right. And he was the first really to go out there and actively campaign. With his first presidential slogan was "Tippy Canoe and Tyler, too" right?

SHENKMAN: Yes, exactly. And he's actually a turning point president even though he only serves a month because he's really the first president who's elected with bells and whistles. This is where the masses have now gotten the vote in the 1820s and 1830s. Harrison comes along to get him elected.

What do they do? They put him out on the stump. He campaigns, first time you ever have a president campaigning for the office. They invent songs and ballads for the campaign. And it's really the first modern campaign in American history.

O'BRIEN: All right. And the rest is history.

All right, let's go move on to James Polk now who is a famous president for the Mexico-American War which we've talked a lot about here in the past because it was a war that was kind of a trumped up war. And there's some interesting historical parallels there.

But what is it about him that's interesting to you?

SHENKMAN: Well, he was a dark horse candidate for the presidency. You remember what they always say about Richard Nixon, that he came back from defeat to become president because in '62 he'd lost the governorship of California after...

O'BRIEN: Right. You're not going won't to Dick Nixon to kick around anymore.

SHENKMAN: Exactly. And this is after he lost the presidency in 1960.

Well, Polk came back from a series of defeats. He had been the speaker of the House of Representatives. Then went home, elected governor of Tennessee. Then he gets defeated for reelection, he runs for Congress, he gets defeated there he runs for governor. Again, he gets defeated there.

He's really a political wash up. He shows up at the convention, Democratic convention, and they deadlock and they turn to him as the president. Becomes our youngest president at age 50.

O'BRIEN: All right, so the Peter Principle could be aptly named the Polk Principle, I suppose.

SHENKMAN: Well, except that he was a very effective president. He came in wanting in California and really getting the Southwest into the United States and he created a war to do it and he did it in four years.

O'BRIEN: All right let's move on. Millard Fillmore. What do we -- this is a name that people sort of vaguely know, I think, these days.

SHENKMAN: I think he's the least well-known president except if you're Jay Leno and Letterman who occasionally will invoke Millard Fillmore to poke fun at obscure American presidents. Here's a guy who...

O'BRIEN: So he's famous for his obscurity?


SHENKMAN: He was dirt poor. One of the log cabin presidents. He was so ignorant that it was his wife who taught him how to read. She was a schoolteacher, taught him how to read. He became a lawyer, minor official in New York state politics. And he was the vice president for Zachary Taylor.

Taylor comes into office and within a year he falls ill after eating a bowl of cherries and ice cream. Fillmore takes over. And he makes one decision in his presidency and it's critical.

Zachary Taylor had been opposed to the Compromise of 1850. Millard Fillmore was in favor of it because Fillmore became president, the Compromise of 1850 passed, that staved off the Civil War for another ten years, and helped preserve a Union -- assure a Union victory in the Civil War.

O'BRIEN: All right. And so he served his purpose. Historically speaking.

All right, let's move on. Franklin Pierce. Let's talk about him.

SHENKMAN: Franklin Pierce, a miserable failure as president. What I think is most important about Pierce...

O'BRIEN: And followed Fillmore. It was a bad stretch, wasn't it?

SHENKMAN: Yes, yes. No, the 1850s we had three bad presidents in a row. It was terrible.

O'BRIEN: Thank goodness for Lincoln. All right, go ahead.

SHENKMAN: Thank goodness for Lincoln.


SHENKMAN: Franklin Pierce runs for president without telling his wife. He had been in the United States Senate, become a drunk. She had forced him to get out of politics. He promised he would stay out of politics. For ten years he kept his promise.

And then it looked like the stars were aligning for a New Englander to possibly win the presidency, and he decided to make a run for it. But he doesn't -- he's not brave enough to tell his wife. She's upstairs while he's downstairs writing letters, campaigning secretly...

O'BRIEN: Don't read the papers, Honey. Really, there's nothing in there you want to read in those paper, right?



SHENKMAN: And then he gets the nomination and he tells his wife, it just came out of the blue. I didn't know it. She finds out on the eve of his inauguration, refused to attend the inauguration. Refuses to move into the White House.

O'BRIEN: Wow. All right. Well, there's more to that story I'm sure.

But let's move on. Finally for today, Chester Arthur.

SHENKMAN: Yes, next to Fillmore he's probably the next least well-known president. Chester Arthur...

O'BRIEN: But a great looking mustache and sideburn combination.

SHENKMAN: It's good you point that out because he was well-known in his day as the best dressed politician in America. He loved frilly clothes and...

O'BRIEN: The facial hair notwithstanding, right?

SHENKMAN: Right, right.

Well he gets to be president only because the president of the United States was assassinated, James Garfield. Chester Arthur comes in and people can't believe that this guy who was a minor, petty, corrupt official from New York state politics machinery, that he was elected president -- that he had become president.

Some politicians who knew him from back in New York said, Chet Arthur, president? Egads.

But he turned out to not be so bad. He got civil service reform through the Congress, the first president to succeed in doing so. But he's also remembered for being the first president to tell a whopper about his health.

He was dying of Bright's Disease which was a kidney disorder. He kept it secret. When people asked about his health because he looked sick, he said, No, I'm fine.

But he was deathly ill and he died shortly after leaving the presidency.

O'BRIEN: All right. Fascinating stuff, Rick Shenkman. And I would like you to join me in a crusade right now to bring "egads" back into the vernacular.

Egads, we're out of time, Professor Shenkman. Thank you for being with us. We appreciate it. We learned something, and that's always good.


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