An honest look at Presidents Day

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On Presidents Day, we honor the 44 men who have held the office of the presidency since George Washington first took the oath of office in 1789.

But wait, isn’t that a typo? After all, Donald Trump is the 45th president, right?

We have Grover Cleveland to thank for creating a disconnect between the number of men who’ve served and the number of presidential administrations.

Cleveland was president from 1885 to 1889, but got booted from office by Benjamin Harrison, even though Cleveland won the popular vote. Sound familiar?

{mosads}We’ve now had a total of five such Electoral College hiccups. Cleveland made a comeback in the 1892 election, defeated Harrison and reclaimed the presidency — the only man to serve two non-consecutive terms. 


If you get confused about whether it’s 44 or 45, don’t worry. You’re in good company. The presidents themselves often get this wrong.

Barack Obama began his 2009 inaugural address declaring that “Forty-four Americans have now taken the presidential oath” — he should have said 43, since he was the 44th president. And in 1969, after his term had ended, our 36th president, Lyndon Johnson, forgot his history too, noting that there had been 36 presidents before his successor, Richard Nixon, instead of 35. 

Blame Grover Cleveland.

Speaking of Cleveland, he was refreshingly honest. It’s a trait we especially long for in today’s post-truth era.

In his 1884 campaign for president, rumors began circulating that the bachelor had fathered a child. Should he categorically deny it and label it as fake news? Should he ignore the media’s hunger for headlines? Should he attack the press, those responsible for the rumor, and the woman?

Not Grover the Good. Cleveland told his political aides and allies, “Whatever you do, tell the truth.” And that helped cement his reputation for honesty.

Well, almost. Cleveland’s record of truth telling was not quite so transparent when it came to his health.

A few months into his second term, the 56-year-old overweight, cigar-chewing president found a large tumor in his mouth that was diagnosed as cancerous. Because he was concerned about how rumors of his health would affect an already fragile economy, he elected to have secret surgery, on a private yacht in New York Harbor. The risky 90-minute operation was a success and his surgery remained a secret — for about two months, that is. 

That’s when a Philadelphia newspaper spilled the beans. How did the president respond? He denied it. Knowing that the president was an honest man, the media wholeheartedly supported and believed Cleveland. 

In chillingly contemporary language about the media, one competing newspaper attacked the reporter who exposed the story as “a disgrace to journalism.” A quarter-century passed before one of the doctors involved in the clandestine surgery confirmed the truth of the story, revealing that Cleveland, the man with a stellar reputation for honesty, had stone-walled. 

Of course, we’ve had other presidents who have explored the elasticity of truth. Some have engaged in cover-ups, ignored uncomfortable facts, or lashed out at those who would dare question the president.

Woodrow Wilson, for instance, masqueraded as president for the last year and a half of his term, hiding from the public the impacts of a stroke that had mentally and physically incapacitated him – essentially putting his wife, Edith, in charge of the government. 

Richard Nixon’s infamous cover-up of his actions in the Watergate scandal thrust him to the brink of an almost certain impeachment and his eventual resignation. Nixon remains the only president in our history to resign.

How did Thomas Jefferson respond to charges that he had fathered children with a slave, Sally Hemings? Rather than deny the charges, attempt a cover-up, or blame others, Jefferson simply ignored the allegations.

The thin-skinned response of John Adams to criticism was to sign the Sedition Act of 1798. The law empowered him to prosecute and imprison anyone who voiced or printed statements critical of the federal government. It remains a shameful stain on his legacy, and an embarrassing contradiction of America’s constitutional commitment to freedom of speech and freedom of the press.

And, of course, the current president has a reputation for making contradictory statements and telling whoppers.

Donald Trump attempts to create the narrative he wants to be true, often by making outlandish and unsupported claims, despite factual evidence to the contrary. In the annals of presidential disrespect for truth, the president trumps even the likes of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon — perhaps some of his closest competitors who valued their image of reality more than objective truth.

It’s a little ironic that the two presidents who are consistently ranked as the greatest and have well-deserved reputations for truth and honesty — George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, whose birthdays we once celebrated separately — now share a February holiday with all their presidential fraternity brothers. In celebrating Presidents Day, we remember not just Washington and Lincoln but the “unsocial savage” John Quincy Adams (his own words), the forgettable Millard Fillmore, and the “non-entity with side whiskers,” Chester Arthur (Woodrow Wilson’s colorful description).

We’ve had an interesting mix of men serve as president over the last almost 227 years: honest men and spinners of truth, the great and the undistinguished, visionaries and dutiful functionaries. 

The day after John Adams became the first president to move into the White House, he wrote a letter to his wife, Abigail, with his prayer: “I pray to heaven to bestow the best blessings on this house and on all that shall hereafter inhabit it. May none but honest and wise men ever rule under this roof.”

It’s still a good prayer. 

Happy Presidents Day!


Mike Purdy is a presidential historian and the founder of PresidentialHistory.com. He is a frequent and popular speaker and is often quoted by the media about presidential history and politics, including CNN, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Reuters, Bloomberg, BBC, and others.

The views of contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

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