In honor of the upcoming Presidents' Day holiday, and in the midst of my country's current scandal-plagued presidential administration, I thought I'd list nine of the more interesting legends involving our past heads of state. Some are rumors, some are guarded secrets, some are mysteries never to be solved. I'm making it a point to avoid sex scandals, as they are too numerous to mention.
- James Garfield, not killed by his assassin? Of the four assassinated US presidents, it appears that Garfield - who was both inaugurated and killed in 1881, making for a very short term in office - would have survived Charles Guiteau's gunshot if it weren't for his incompetent surgeons, who infected his wounds while "treating" him. (Garfield actually lived on, mostly in a conscious, working state, for eighty days after the shooting.)
- Chester Arthur, the illegal president? Garfield's little-known successor was, historians believe, actually born in Canada, which would have made him ineligible to become president of the United States under constitutional law.
- James Buchanan, the gay president? Buchanan, president from 1856 to 1860 (right before Lincoln), never married; his "first lady" was his niece. Washington wags had him tied to Franklin Pierce's vice president William R. King, another bachelor, whom Andrew Jackson nicknamed "Miss Nancy".
- Abraham Lincoln, an atheist? Even while some are claiming nowadays that Honest Abe was himself gay, what's more likely is that he was an atheist. Many of his letters support this claim. In any event, he wasn't religious - nor were several other presidents, from Madison to Taft, who blasted Christianity on many occasions. This is hard to fathom in today's climate, when our presidents seem to fall over themselves trying to prove how pious they are.
- Warren G. Harding, murdered? The historically unpopular Harding, elected in 1920, had one of the most scandal-plagued presidencies of all - and that included his own death by food poisoning in 1923. Was he murdered? If so, by whom? Al Capone's hitmen? Harding's own wife? (He'd carried on a long affair with another woman under her nose.) This, along with incessant gossip that he had African-American blood running through his veins, will forever cloud his legacy.
- Franklin Roosevelt's many rumors. We all know now that the polio-stricken FDR was confined to a wheelchair during his presidency, but a sympathetic press corps (imagine that!) chose to ignore it. What's slightly more debatable are things like wife Eleanor's sexuality (many believe she was a lesbian), how she was related to Franklin (it's often falsely stated they were first cousins; they were, in fact, fifth cousins once removed), and his lifelong affair with Lucy Mercer. These days, some simply tie all the rumors together by saying that Eleanor had her girlfriend, Franklin had his girlfriend, and their marriage, after 1920, was merely a legal and political partnership.
- John F. Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe? Okay, I had to include one sex scandal, since this one is legendary. But who really knows anything? We know that Rat Pack member Peter Lawford, who was friends with MM (and was the last person officially known to talk to her before she died), married JFK's sister Patricia. We know that MM famously sang "Happy Birthday" to JFK during one of her last public appearances. But what else? Did they have an affair? Did he have her killed? Anybody who could have told the whole story is now dead.
- The founding fathers - pot smokers? It's well known that hemp - which begets marijuana, among many other things - was widely grown back in the early days of our nation. Washington, Jefferson, and many other framers of the Constitution grew hemp and supposedly wrote about the delights of certain strains of it. Unfortunately, if you check the Internet for more information, most of these claims are written by potheads. I've been unable to find a truly objective opinion about this.
- Did George Washington actually hate being President? This one is fact, one that I have seen with my own eyes after reading several of Washington's handwritten letters at a museum. Coaxed to serve as president by the infant Congress of the United States, the father of our country utterly loathed his job, constantly complaining about it to friends. (He was a real bummer of a guy, to judge by his letters.) It was with extreme reluctance and heavy heart that he served a second term; his colleagues' rationale was that the nation was too young and fragile to survive a potentially divisive presidential election so early on.