“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,

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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.

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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. 

Any Hope for the Nixon Ghost?

By Kaleena Fraga

Upon leaving office, most presidents enjoy a reexamination of their legacy, unplagued by partisanship, varnished by time, and held astride the current occupant of the presidency and his struggles. Even George W. Bush, one of the most unpopular president of modern times, has seen his popularity grow as his tenure in the White House fades from collective memory. Yet Richard Nixon is denied the luxury of time.

Indeed, it’s far too easy to throw Nixon under the proverbial bus of history. Today, in an era ripe with scandal, pundits Richard M. Nixonare eager to add the -gate moniker to anything that appears to suggest impropriety. This knee jerk reaction to make Nixon the boogeyman of American political commentary is lazy, and unfair to his administration’s accomplishments in office.

It’s increasingly popular today to draw comparisons between the Nixon presidency and that of Donald J. Trump. Yet the two men could not be more different.

To start with the basics, one has to venture back to Nixon’s hometown of Whittier, California. Unlike Trump, who was born into money and coasted on his father’s coattails his entire life, Nixon was born to humble means—the son of a grocer. Nixon ascended because of his intellect—he consistently excelled in school and was offered a place at elite east coast universities, places he had to turn down to stay close to home. He served his country during WWII in the Navy (Trump infamously received five deferments for “ankle spurs.”) Despite the commonly accepted image of Nixon as painfully introverted, he was well-liked among his men and proved himself as an officer. Accepted to Duke University Law School after the war, Nixon lived in what amounted to a shack in the woods in order to afford his tuition.

Although dangerous to play the “what-if” game in the realms of history, one has to wonder what would have happened if Nixon had bested Kennedy in 1960. An able Vice President, he proved himself loyal to Dwight D. Eisenhower and a capable representative during his trips abroad. Nixon, doomed by a promise he’d made to visit all 50 states and a recurring knee injury, appeared sickly and unfocused during the first debate with Kennedy. Forgotten by history, he vastly improved in the next three. The election was one of the closest ever, and one in which Nixon and his confidents were sure had been rigged in Illinois and in Texas. We’ll never know how Trump would have reacted had he lost to Clinton, but Nixon chose not to agitate the issue of election tampering, instead stepping aside and allowing Kennedy, his once friend, now enemy, to become president.

During his own tenure as president, Nixon boasts an impressive list of accomplishments—many of which would have pleased today’s liberals. He sought to alleviate the tensions of the Cold War, becoming the first sitting president to visit Moscow. He opened up diplomatic relations with Communist China. Nixon created the EPA and oversaw the implementation of Title IX. It was under Nixon that a man went to the moon. And in 1972, the electorate rewarded him mightily, handing him a 49 state victory (only MA denied him a full sweep).

This is not to deny the wrongs Nixon committed in office, only to complicate them. Nixon was paranoid. He was secretive. He swore and used racial epithets. He escalated and expanded a war he’d promised to end. Still, his resignation from office shocked 

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the world. Stephen Ambrose notes that many Europeans greeted the news with dismay—they thought Nixon the best president that the United States had had in recent memory.

Nixon will always be a president (the only one thus far) who resigned from office. He’ll always be the man who let Watergate destroy his administration from the inside. But it’s important to recognize that these events were part of a larger picture of the Nixon administration. It’s easy but inaccurate to link Trump to Nixon. Rather, it would do the country good to examine the intricacies of Nixon’s legacy, and to recognize its failures alongside its successes.

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.

 

Panda Diplomacy

By Kaleena Fraga

In 1972, President Nixon made history by visiting China, the first sitting president to do so.

During the visit, he and his wife, Pat, had the opportunity to see some Chinese pandas. Later, eating dinner with Zhou En-Lai, Pat noticed a cigarette box with pandas on the front.

“Aren’t those cute?” she said. “I love them.”

Zhou looked at the cigarette box and nodded. “I’ll get you some,” he said.

“Cigarettes?” Pat responded.

“Pandas!”

Sure enough, China sent a pair of pandas to the United States, causing Pat Nixon to quip that “Panda-monium” had struck Washington D.C.

(Thanks to https://www.nixonfoundation.org and John A. Farrell’s Richard Nixon: A Life for this tidbit)