Who Wins? author Clay Swartz brings some much-needed levity to the table this afternoon, taking the politics out of the presidency with these funny competitions for our commanders-in-chief.
Most Charming President?
Politicians haven’t always been charming. Before the widespread use of radio, and later TV, they could do and say just about whatever they wanted without too many repercussions. It wasn’t until the 1920s that presidents actually had to be interesting. The point is, most modern presidents are generally charming. For every personality dud like Richard Nixon, we’ve had charmers like Bill Clinton, John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, and Franklin D. Roosevelt. But, for me, the most charming president is clearly Barack Obama. Before you get too political, I’m basing this completely on his personality and his sheer visibility for the better part of a decade. Thanks to social media and an expanding internet, he’s been in the spotlight unlike any other American president. The best example of which is the recent hashtag #ObamaAndKids, which shows seemingly endless examples of heartwarming, goofy, hilarious, and downright emotional photos of him and children over the course of his presidency. Despite the constant spotlight, his winning smile, oratory prowess, and infectious hope hasn’t wavered a bit. In an era of increasing scandal, the example he’s set as a husband and father has been blemish-free and squeaky clean.
Bold statement: Most presidents aren’t funny. Even so, there are a few funny standouts. Lyndon B. Johnson’s southern drawl delivery and winning personality made him a deadpan knockout. Theodore Roosevelt, one of the biggest presidential personalities, wrote letters that are legendarily hilarious. George H.W. Bush, who once vomited on the prime minister of Japan, was funny for other reasons. His son, George W. Bush, had that everyman quality that made him funny in an uncle-at-the-Thanksgiving-dinner-table kind of way. Recently, Barack Obama has lit up the White House Correspondents’ Dinner with hilarious jokes aimed at peers and other notable types. Plus, he’s got the rare gift to make even the snarkiest millennial LOL. But my pick is Abraham Lincoln. Think about it: Skinny as a scarecrow and taller than most 19th century men, he made most laugh just by standing there. And that hat, too. But it wasn’t just his appearance. He was known to do incredible impressions of his contemporaries and his legendary speeches were often laced with wit and hilarity.
Most Athletic President?
This is a different story altogether. With the exception of a few presidents (I’m looking at you, William Taft), presidents are usually fit folks. George Washington was a heroic soldier, Gerald Ford played on two national championship football teams, Dwight Eisenhower played football at West Point, Ronald Reagan was a lifesaving lifeguard, John F. Kennedy was a swimmer at Harvard and a scratch golfer, Jimmy Carter was a cross-country runner, Abraham Lincoln was a wrestler, Barack Obama is a pick-up basketball pro and golf fanatic, and baseball expert George W. Bush threw out an epic first pitch at Yankee Stadium after 9/11. But my choice for most athletic president is Theodore Roosevelt. Why? It’s his all-around game. The guy was an elite outdoorsman, a boxer, a wrestler, a martial artist, a hunter. He was into tennis, swimming, hiking, and mountain climbing.
Here’s another example of almost every president being near the top. Most are Ivy League graduates with more wisdom than a religious text. Going by estimated IQs, presidents like John Adams (173), John F. Kennedy (158), and Bill Clinton (156) are among the most intelligent presidents. But IQs don’t tell the whole story, right? John Quincy Adams was fluent in at least four languages, and translated Latin and ancient Greek. John F. Kennedy wrote a Pulitzer Prize–winning collection of historical profiles. Theodore Roosevelt supposedly read a book a day. But I can pick only one president as the very smartest: Thomas Jefferson. Call me biased, but a lot of my decision has to do with his love of books. I mean, Jefferson’s book collection was the original Library of Congress. But, at 160, his IQ was genius level, too. Plus, he was perhaps the most important founding father, drafted the Declaration of Independence, and established the University of Virginia. Noted 19th century biographer James Parton described Jefferson as a man who “could calculate an eclipse, survey an estate, tie an artery, plan an edifice, try a cause, break a horse, dance a minuet, and play the violin.” Top that.
Coolest Presidential Pet?
If you think the White House has been home to only dogs and cats, you’re way off. We’ve had some seriously wacky presidential pets. George Washington had a parrot and horses; Thomas Jefferson had a mockingbird and two bear cubs; Martin Van Buren had two tigers; James Buchanan had an eagle and an elephant; Abraham Lincoln had turkeys, goats, and a white rabbit; and Theodore Roosevelt had rats, an owl, a flying squirrel, a raccoon, a snake, a lizard, and even a zebra. You’d think Teddy would be the winner, but nope. The clear winner is John Quincy Adams, who brought a freaking alligator with him to the White House. He kept the gator in the unfinished East Room’s bathtub, and showed off the scary-looking animal to White House visitors for several years. Why an alligator? Revolutionary War hero the Marquis de Lafayette gave it to him as a gift in 1825.
Who Wins? First Lady Edition
Warning: I’m not going to pick a winner here. It’s really just my excuse to brag about some of the coolest women in history. First of all, the position of First Lady is weirdly underrated. Think about it. Technically, they have no official responsibilities, yet they’re involved in exhausting political campaigns, overseeing the White House, championing social causes, representing the American people at every waking hour, and being in constant spotlight for their every move. Despite being unfairly reduced to tabloid gossip, First Ladies have had some incredible accomplishments. Eleanor Roosevelt was the first to truly transform the role of the First Lady, making it a more political position. She advised her husband during wartime, held her own press conferences, and later served as chair of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights. Sarah Polk worked —unpaid— as her husband’s secretary. Michelle Obama has been tireless in her fight for causes like childhood obesity. Lady Bird Johnson dedicated herself to national wildlife preservation. Betty Ford took up causes like drug addiction, founding the Betty Ford Center to combat substance abuse. Martha Washington set the precedent for managing the presidential household and hosting formal functions. Eliza Johnson taught her husband, president Andrew Johnson, how to spell and pronounce words properly. Lucy Hayes oversaw the first Easter Egg Roll on the White House lawn. Helen Taft was the first First Lady to support women’s suffrage, publish her memoirs, and successfully lobby for safety standards in federal workplaces.
Check out more of Clay Swartz’s historical hypotheticals with his book Who Wins?: 100 Historical Figures Go Head to Head and You Decide the Winner!