“Only Nixon Could Go to China”

By Kaleena Fraga

Although this expression seems to have roots in Star Trek–Spock once offered it as a Vulcan proverb–there is terrestrial truth to the statement as well. With President Trump currently in China, it’s worth looking back on the first man to make such an overture.

Why was Nixon the only president who could go to China? It has to do with his credentials as a “Cold Warrior.” As a congressman, senator, and vice president he built a reputation of being tough on communism. As a candidate for vice presidency in 1952, he hammered the the Democrats–their candidate, Adlai Stevenson, and their president, Harry Truman–as being soft on communism and unwilling to deter its spread across the world.

Yet, Nixon was not the kind of Congressman who hated communism blindly. Indeed, he took great interest in international affairs and the post-WWII order. In 1967, as he geared up to run for president, Nixon penned an article in Foreign Affairs, “Asia After Vietnam,” making the case for China to end its isolation and the join the international community.

nixonchina2Nixon took political risks in extending a hand to China. Hardline members of his own party saw any sort of negotiation with China as a betrayal to their values. America’s allies in Asia were equally alarmed. But Nixon saw this overture as a way to balance the playing field of the Cold War, to ease tensions, rather than to exacerbate them. As a hardliner himself, as someone who had long battled communists at home and abroad (with the scars from the Hiss trial to prove it), it made sense that he would be the first to offer an open hand to a distrusted and misunderstood nation. A Democrat would be open to accusations of bowing to communism–given Nixon’s credentials, this sort of charge fell flat.

Tuesday Taft Trivia

By Kaleena Fraga

William Howard Taft is perhaps best known for his girth, and for the story (likely untrue) that he once got stuck in a White House bathtub. Taft was largely overshadowed by his predecessor, Teddy Roosevelt, and it was their grappling over the presidency in 1912 that allowed for Woodrow Wilson to snag the victory (Wilson and Grover Cleveland were the only Democrats since the Civil War to reach the White House).

But for Taft the presidency was only four short years of his life. Upon becoming Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, his true ambition all along, Taft remarked that he hardly even remembered his term in office.

Ten Taft Tales:

    1. Taft is the only person in American history to serve as both President and Chief Justice.
    2. As Chief Justice, Taft swore in two other presidents: Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover.
    3. His son, Robert Taft, also ran for president. People referred to him as “Mr. Republican.” Young Robert Taft lost in the primaries to Dwight D. Eisenhower.
    4. Taft’s people unsuccessfully tried to replicate Teddy Roosevelt’s success in the toy realm by creating “Billy the Possum.” It was a failure.
    5. Although Taft and Roosevelt’s relationship soured during Taft’s presidency, and during the campaign of 1912, the two later patched things up.
    6. In 1912, largely due to a divided vote between Taft and Roosevelt, and Roosevelt’s enduring popularity, Taft won only eight electoral votes–the worst showing ever for an incumbent president.
    7. Taft threw out the very first “First Pitch” in 1910. President Taft Throwing the First Pitch at a Baseball Game
    8. Taft, encouraged toward the presidency by his wife Nellie, more than by his own ambition, was devastated when she suffered a stroke during his presidency. The more social of the two, Nellie’s illness hindered Taft’s ability to rub elbows in Washington.
    9. Taft was the heaviest president, weighing at one time 354 pounds. After he left the presidency, he purportedly lost 70 pounds.
    10. Taft, like the current president, enjoyed golf.

Happy 282nd Birthday John Adams!

By Kaleena Fraga

Yesterday, October 30th, 2017, was John Adams’ 282nd birthday. Adams was born in Quincy, MA and was a key figure in the American Revolution and the aftermath–he played an important role in the Continental Congress, worked with allies abroad during the war, and served as the nation’s first vice president and second president.

Adams is the only Founding Father to have never owned slaves; he is also the only one without a monument in Washington D.C.

Adams was known for his intelligence and vanity. He had a quick wit and wasn’t afraid to lash out (unlike his counterparts–who were often more strategic and sly, penning anonymous op-eds or communicating their feelings through friends–Adams couldn’t resist letting his feelings be known).

Adams’ family is remarkable as well–his wife, Abigail Adams, was as quick with a quill if not quicker than her husband. Their son, John Quincy Adams, went on to be president himself. JQA is also debatably the most intelligent of the presidents

John Adams made plenty of enemies as president, including his vice president and former friend, Thomas Jefferson. The two men, however, later reconciled in their old age. They died on the same day, July 4th, 1826.

Make American Political Ads Cute Again!

By Kaleena Fraga

Political ads have come a long way since the Eisenhower era. This jingle is impossible to forget–even the most stalwart Democrat will find themselves humming it.

A lot of things contributed to Ike’s victory in 1952–fatigue among Americans of the Democratic party (after all, Dems had been in power since 1933), a feisty and well defined campaign by the Republicans (Ike’s VP pick, Richard Nixon, was able to emphasize the three “Cs”–China, Communism, Corruption), and the disdain of Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic nominee, toward ads like Ike’s. Stevenson refused to be “sold like soap.”

Although this ad is the most famous, Eisenhower also utilized television to reach out to Americans by producing dozens of 20 second videos called “Eisenhower Answers America,” in which he’d respond to a question posed by a sympathetic citizen.

In this way, Ike was way ahead of the curve when it came to using television to advertise and promote a political campaign. Who knows what he might have done with Twitter.

That Was Close: TR, Jackson, & Would-Be Assassins

By Kaleena Fraga

A handful of American presidents have been assassinated while in office–Garfield, Lincoln, McKinley, and Kennedy. More, however, have survived attempts on their life–often in stunning ways.

Andrew Jackson, known today perhaps because of the controversy surrounding his place in history (and on the twenty dollar bill), was no less polarizing as president. He holds the dubious honor of being the first president to experience an attempt on his life. Jackson was leaving a funeral at the Capitol building when his would-be assassin, Richard Lawrence, ran up to him and shot his gun–but the gun misfired. Jackson, never one to back down from a fight (it was Jackson who said, “I was born for the storm; calm does not suit me”) began to beat Lawrence with his walking cane. Lawrence pulled out a second pistol but–incredibly–this gun also misfired. Experts later claimed that the odds of both guns misfiring were 1 in 125,000.

Approximately 105 years ago, on October 14, 1912, Teddy Roosevelt also survived an assassin’s bullet. Roosevelt was campaigning for president, having decided to run for a non-consecutive third term against his former friend and the incumbent Republican president, William Howard Taft. Arriving at a campaign event, Roosevelt was making his way through the crowd when John Schrank fired. Roosevelt was knocked down, but he struggled back to his feet and asked that the man–apprehended by his stenographer–be brought over. Roosevelt looked his would-be killer in the eyes and asked, “What’d you do it for?” When he got no response, he said,”Oh what’s the use. Take him away.”

teddy's papers
TR’s speech

Although his staff wanted him to go immediately to the hospital, Roosevelt insisted on giving his planned speech, since he could breathe fine and he wasn’t coughing up any blood. To the audience, Roosevelt announced that he’d just survived an assassination attempt but that “it takes more than that to kill a bull moose!” He withdrew his speech–fifty pages of thick paper, folded in half, from his breast pocket. Although Roosevelt had escaped the incident (mostly) unscathed, the speech had not. It, and an eyeglass holder, had deflected the bullet from hitting Roosevelt in the heart.

“If You Need a Friend in Washington–Get a Dog”

By Kaleena Fraga

Over the course of White House history, the American public has grown used to seeing an animal in the White House. No, we’re not referring to any occupants of the Oval Office–rather the plethora of beasts that U.S. presidents have brought with them, everything from Jefferson’s mockingbird “Dick” to Lyndon Johnson’s beagles “Him” and “Her”.

President Trump is something of an outlier in that he came to the White House pet-less, despite some rumors that he’d been given a dog named Patton. Harry Truman also had no desire to add a First Dog to the White House, and this got him in trouble.

The story goes (and we’d encourage everyone to check out the fantastic site http://www.presidentialpetmuseum.com/ for more) that a woman from Truman’s home state of Missouri sent the first family a dog named Feller. The gift made sense. After all,

FDR & Fala at the White House in 1941

Truman’s predecessor Franklin Roosevelt had famously kept his dog Fala at his side during his presidency. But Truman did not want the dog. After much fanfare surrounding the dog’s arrival, Truman re-gifted Feller to his doctor.

An uproar ensued among the American public, who deemed Truman “anti-canine.”

A reporter later asked Truman what had ever happened to Feller. Confused, Truman responded, “To what?”

The reporter reminded Truman of the dog’s existence, and Truman replied, “Oh…he’s around.”

Fortunately for Feller, after changing hands a few more times, he spent the rest of his days on a farm in Ohio (yes, really!). All in all, it was probably preferable to the cramped quarters of the White House, especially with a master who didn’t especially care for dogs.


Spiro, We Hardly Knew Ye

By Kaleena Fraga

On this day in 1973, Spiro Agnew, VP to Richard Nixon, resigned in disgrace. He was the first vice president to do so.

Vice presidents are rarely remembered, but Agnew’s resignation had consequences because of what happened next. Gerald Ford was nominated by Nixon to fill the post vacated by Agnew because he was seen as well-liked and honest (Agnew, on the other hand, had been caught taking bribes). Both men might have remained footnotes of history had Richard Nixon not resigned less than a year later. Thus Gerald Ford because the first unelected president in American history.

If our friend Spiro had never been caught (or if he’d done his taxes), he could have become president in 1974.

Truman & the Television

By Kaleena Fraga

Last week marked the anniversary of the first televised presidential debate (September 26, 1960) between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy. This is a moment that gets the most attention–it arguably altered American politics forever by bringing in a new level of stakes for candidates. Image became paramount. It’s an oft repeated anecdote that while radio listeners gave the debate to Nixon, television viewers awarded it to Kennedy. Any observers of the 2016 election would likely agree that the fever pitch around the debates (especially during the primaries) is indicative of the importance of image in today’s political culture.

But the real television trailblazer is Harry S Truman, who on this day (October 5th, 1947) gave the first televised address by a U.S. president. Pre-Marshall Plan, Truman was appealing to his fellow Americans to help support war-torn Europe by not eating meat on Tuesdays, not eating chicken on Thursdays, and to eat less bread.

Truman didn’t have a large audience–the television itself was still something of a commodity. But he seemed to have faith in the medium–the rest of his White House speeches were all televised.

Truman’s televised inauguration in 1949

He also was the first president to have his inauguration televised. We can only speculate on what a Truman-Dewey debate might have been like!

(Thanks to “Truman” by my fave David McCullough)



No One Takes Down Teddy

By Kaleena Fraga

It’s a well known fact that the teddy bear came from the Teddy Roosevelt presidency. Legend has it a friend presented TR with a bear tied up for him to shoot during a hunt. TR refused, saying it was unsportsmanlike to shoot a tied up animal. The story spread, someone had the idea to make a toy from the story, and the teddy bear became wildly popular.


Taft and Possum
There were so many amazing Taft/Possum images. Hard to chose just one!

When William Howard Taft became president, conniving minds hatched a plan to launch a new, Taft themed stuffed animal. Because Taft apparently had a penchant for eating possum, it was decided that the Taft version of the teddy bear would be a stuffed toy possum

Hundreds were made, and a campaign was created to take down the teddy bear, but the stuffed possums were a complete flop. According to Doris Kearns Goodwin’s excellent book “The Bully Pulpit” this was in large part because the stuffed toy looked like a giant rat, and it horrified its intended audience. Still, the whole debacle left us with a legacy of some pretty amazing depictions of President Taft and possums. Some of these toys still exist–they are terrifying. 

But Who Holds the Bible?

By Kaleena Fraga

Here at History First we are thinking about instituting a “First Lady Friday” but in the meantime, this Thursday’s trivia features the truly remarkable first lady Lady Bird Johnson.

(Bonus trivia: LBJ’s entire family had the initials LBJ. Their beagles were named Him and Her.)

This trivia comes from the delightful book “Lady Bird and Lyndon” by Betty Boyd Caroli which History First highly, highly recommends. It provides a fresh look at the LBJ presidency, the LBJ/Lady Bird marriage, and Lady Bird herself, who has not received the accolades she deserves.

Today the American public is used to seeing first ladies holding the Bible on Inauguration day. Melania Trump did it, Michelle Obama, Laura Bush, etc., etc., The first woman to do this was none other than Lady Bird Johnson. Before 1964, a Congressional aid had held the Bible. LBJ wanted Lady Bird.

In January 1969, Nixon asked the same of Pat Nixon. And thus a tradition was born.