[Following is the tenth of a twelve-part series in COLUMNIST WITH A VIEW. The sketches are taken from the editor’s book manuscript Our Curious Presidents and Their Families. Many books of presidential trivia are available, however, the pieces I have selected from my own research are somewhat obscure. Most of them come from presidential autobiographies, approved biographies, or the sources indicated.]
John Adams said of his predecessor George Washington: “He is too illiterate, unread, unlearned for his station and reputation.” On the other hand, Thomas Jefferson had this to say about John Adams: “He is as disinterested as the Being who made him.” Jefferson said of Washington: “His mind was slow in operation but sure in conclusion,” which, I assume, was a compliment!
Jefferson said of Andrew Jackson: “I feel much alarmed at the prospect of seeing Jackson president. A mixture of profound and sagacious observation with strong prejudices and irritated passions.”
William Henry Harrison said of John Quincy Adams: “It is said [John Quincy Adams] is a disgusting man…coarse, dirty, and clownish in his address and stiff and abstracted in his opinions, which are drawn from books exclusively.”
James Knox Polk, who is considered by presidential historians to be one of our most successful presidents, said of James Buchanan, who is considered one of our least successful presidents: “All his acts and opinions seem to be with a view to his own advancement….Mr. Buchanan is an able man, but is in small matters without judgment and sometimes acts like an old maid.”
Abraham Lincoln complimented Jefferson by saying: “The principles of Jefferson are the definitions and axioms of a free society.” Of James Knox Polk, he had this to say: “I suspect he is deeply conscious of being in the wrong–that he feels the blood of this war [the Mexican War] like the blood of Abel, is crying to Heaven against him….He is a bewildered, confounded, and miserably perplexed man.”
Andrew Johnson remarked of Ulysses S. Grant: “…his brain could have been compressed within the periphery of a nutshell.” Grant was not always solicitous. He said of James A. Garfield, “Garfield has shown that he is not possessed of the backbone of an angle-worm.” Garfield summarized Grant’s administration by, truthfully, saying,”Grant has done more than any other president to degrade the character of Cabinet officers by choosing them on the model of the military staff, because of their pleasant personal relations with him and not because of their national reputation or the country’s needs.”
Theodore Roosevelt called Benjamin Harrison “a cold-blooded, narrow-minded, prejudiced, obstinate, timid old Psalm-singing Indianapolis politician.” That about said it all! He said essentially the same thing of Woodrow Wilson, but in fewer words: “He is an utterly selfish and cold-blooded politician always.” Roosevelt could never be accused of mincing words!
Woodrow Wilson said about Warren G. Harding: “Harding is incapable of thought, because he has nothing to think with.”
Harry Truman once said of John Adams, “It’s just that he wasn’t very special.” He wasn’t particularly gentle with his successors either. Of Dwight D. Eisenhower he said, surprisingly, “The trouble with Eisenhower is he’s just a coward….He hasn’t any backbone at all.” About Richard Nixon he said,”I don’t think the son-of-a-bitch knows the difference between telling the truth and lying.”
John F. Kennedy shortened Truman’s opinion of Nixon by remarking simply, “He has no taste!” In 1960, Kennedy expanded his assessment of Nixon: “He’s a conservative, and if he became president, we could expect Republican policy would switch to the right….He is a filthy, lying son-of-a-bitch, and a very dangerous man!” No one seems to have had much good to say about Richard Nixon. Lyndon B. Johnson said, “I just knew in my heart that it was not right for Nixon to ever be president of this country.” Of Nixon’s successor Gerald Ford, Johnson remarked, “He played too much football with his helmet off! Jerry’s the only man I ever knew who can’t walk and chew gum at the same time.”
Interestingly, Nixon said of Ronald Reagan, a fellow republican, “Reagan is not one that wears well. Reagan, on a personal basis, is terrible. He just isn’t pleasant to be around. Maybe he’s different with others. No, he’s just an uncomfortable man to be around…strange.” Nixon may have hit the nail on the head when he said “Maybe he’s different with others.” Personally, although I empathized with the man, I’ve always thought Richard Nixon would have been an insufferably outspoken dinner guest.
Ronald Reagan said of Bill Clinton: “This fellow they’ve nominated claims he’s the new Thomas Jefferson. Well, let me tell you something, I knew Thomas Jefferson. He was a friend of mine. And governor, you’re no Thomas Jefferson!” The quote was paraphrased by Lloyd Bentsen in a debate with Dan Quayle. Bentsen used “Jack Kennedy” instead of “Thomas Jefferson,” and the phrase, though well-remembered, lost a lot of Reagan’s punch.
Bill Clinton said of George H. W. Bush: “Every time Bush talks about trust it makes chills run up and down my spine. The way he has trampled on the truth is a travesty of the American political system.” About his father, George W. Bush said, “I had watched Dad climb into the biggest arena and succeed. I wanted to find out if I had what it took to join him.”
According to Blood Feud by Edward Klein, Clinton once said to his friends, “‘I hate that man Obama more than any man I’ve ever met, more than any man who ever lived.'” He was apparently referring to Obama’s once referring to him as a racist during Obama’s campaign for the nomination against Hillary Clinton.
At the dedication of the George W. Bush library, Barack Obama said of George W. Bush: “…what President Clinton said is absolutely true–to know the man is to like the man, because he’s comfortable in his own skin. He knows who he is. He doesn’t put on any pretenses. He takes his job seriously, but he doesn’t take himself too seriously. He is a good man.” On the same occasion, Clinton said, “He [George W. Bush] used to call me twice a year in his second term, just to talk. We talked about everything in the wide world.”
Referring, of course, to his relationship with his successor Barack Obama, George W. Bush said, “I don’t think it’s good for the country to have a former president undermine a current president; I think its bad for the presidency for that matter.”