A review of Barbara Holland’s Hail to the Chiefs: Presidential mischief, morals, and Malarkey from George W. to George W. (2003)
(Rating 4 of 5)
A few years ago my sister bought me this book as a birthday present. This is a funny little book where Barbara Holland takes on the nation’s chief executives one by one bringing them all down a peg. Here are some of my favorite examples.
Holland comments on President Washington and praying. There are many myths on Washington. Some are widely believed (wooden teeth) and correctly disbelieved (the cherry tree). Here Holland takes on the famous kneeling scene.
“There’s a pretty story about him kneeling in prayer in the snow at Valley Forge, and you’re welcome to believe it if you want, but he had a famous aversion to kneeling. When Martha dragged him to church on Sundays, he wouldn’t kneel at the customary points in the service. He was a big man and this made him kind of conspicuous, but he didn’t care.” (p.8)
John Adams and his famous wife with regards to their family.
“All the Adams men were very bright and had no patience with people who weren’t bright enough to see things their way. They even allowed their wives to be bright, so at least one person would see things their way, but this wasn’t always enough. The only wife to give full satisfaction was Abigail, and the other wives got pretty fed up with hearing about her.” (p.13)
When discussing Jefferson and the writing of the Declaration of Independence she points out that event was not the image the famous painting made for it.
“He wrote the Declaration of Independence, or at least the first draft. Adams and Franklin made some changes, and then the congressional committee made some more. Everyone’s an editor. Congress didn’t get around to signing it until August, but on July 4 they’d said they liked it fine and wouldn’t make any more changes, so we can go on having our Fourth of July parades on the Fourth of July.” (p.30)
In the Jackson chapter she talks about his duels.
“Jackson was touchy about this lapse, and when a man named Dickinson made some carry remark he challenged him to a duel, though Dickinson could drill a dime at fifty yards and Jackson had terrible eyes on him and could hardly see a dime. He let Dickinson shoot first and the bullet broke one of Jackson’s ribs, and then he took extra-careful aim and shot Dickerson stone dead. He said, ‘I intended to kill him. I would have stood up long enough to kill him if he had put a bullet in my brain.’”
On my ‘favorite’ president, James K. Polk in his expansionist dreams.
He said Oregon was really ours, because Lewis and Clark had spent the whole winter of 1805-06 there. Besides, in 1834 a couple of bird-watchers had gone out with an expedition and come home to write about how nice the birds were there. England said it was hers, because her Hudson’s Bay Company had been cheating the Indians there for simply ages. We won. Many people didn’t care much one way or the other. It was rainy and infested with Nez Perces, but the salmon fishing was first-rate.” (p.99)
She quite accurately sums up Lincoln’s time in the office.
“Lincoln never had any fun being President because of the Civil War the whole time. It was all ready to roll when he took office, and five days after it was over he was dead as a duck. He had the war, the whole war, and nothing but the war.” (p.139)
Holland explains some main differences between modern and early presidents.
“Grover Cleveland was elected back in the dark days before television, back even before we learned that Presidents ought to be charming, physically toothsome, and fit as fiddles. He was none of the above.” (p. 185)
She lets us know how conservation started.
“Teddy was as fond of nature as cannibals are of missionaries, and he didn’t just go backpacking through it either. He charged right in and shot it between the eyes and had it stuffed and mounted. When Gifford Pinchot, a man who knew a few things about trees, complained that the lumber companies were chopping them down left and right, Teddy was upset. He was afraid the outdoors would disappear and he’d be reduced to popping at squirrels in the Rose Garden. He and Pinchot decided to tell the lumber companies to go easy, and only cut down the large commercially valuable trees and leave some for the rest. They called this ‘Conservation’.” (p.217)
My grandfather can confirm this part.
“Roosevelt was President for so long that by the time he died, everyone under twenty thought ‘President’ was his first name and wondered what we were going to cal the next man.” (p.263)
The public view on going from President Eisenhower to President Kennedy:
“Ernest Hemingway said, ‘It is a good thing to have a brave man as our President in time as tough as these are.’A senator said, ‘He seems to combine the best qualities of Elvis Presley and Franklin D. Roosevelt.’John Steinbeck said, ‘What a joy that literacy is no longer prima-facie evidence of treason.’An unidentified Kennedy aide said, ‘This administration is going to do for sex what the last one did for golf.’” (p.296)
Maybe Reagan’s mind was leaving him earlier than we thought.
“It is possible that Reagan stayed so cool because he thought he’d been shot in a movie. Sometimes it wasn’t whether he was in the White House or in a movie about the White House, or perhaps a movie about football players and fighter pilots.” (p.345)
Holland on why people liked Clinton.
“Bill Clinton was a very smart man who’d been a Rhodes scholar and knew way too much about most things, including such un-Presidential matters as modern literature. This would have disqualified him for President, or even—or especially—governor of Arkansas, if he hadn’t kept doing really dumb things with bimbos that everyone could relate to.” (p.359)
Explaining George W. Bush and his work ethic.
“Bush was no workaholic and cut himself a bit of slack on the job. He was crazy about fitness and worked out for hours, and he spent quite a lot of time back in Texas where, he said, the real people lived, on a place he called his ranch.” (p.375)
Holland explains in a footnote that Bush is ranch had no animals on it. It was just a big place he could ride a go-cart around.
If you want to read an amusing book on presidents than this is the book for you. I laughed through every chapter.