CONTENT WARNING: the following may contain some mild language, crude humor, alcohol, and commentary on American politics.
28 – WOODROW WILSON
Presidential Years: 1913-1921
Political Party: Democrat
Vice President: Thomas R. Marshall
Ran Against: President William Howard Taft (Republican), Teddy Roosevelt (Progressive Party) / Charles E. Hughes (2nd term)
First Lady: Ellen Axson Wilson / Edith Galt Wilson
Quote: “If you want to make enemies, try to change something.“
Best known for: Getting America involved in World War I
Random Fact: During his second term, Wilson suffered a stroke, so the First Lady (Edith, his second wife) basically took over as President, in everything but name
Bio: Woodrow Wilson was a Southern Presbyterian politician known for his stiff and formal appearance. Before becoming President of the United States, Wilson served as the President of Princeton University and was the Governor of New Jersey. During the famous Election of 1912, Wilson ran against two former Presidents: William Howard Taft *and* Theodore Roosevelt (plus some socialist third party guy). As I mentioned last time, Wilson won mostly because Teddy Roosevelt ran against Taft, which split the Republican party in two.
Woodrow Wilson was the first (and only) President to have both a PHD and a Nobel Peace Prize. He was also a walking medical dictionary of ailments: headaches, severe stomach problems, dyslexia, partial blindness, random bouts of unexplained pain, etc – not to mention suffering multiple strokes towards the end of his Presidency. (more on that later) In 1914, Woodrow’s first wife, Ellen, died of Bright’s disease. One year later, he married his mistress, Edith (a direct descendant of Powhatan Princess, Pocahontas!). It turns out that Edith wasn’t the only extramarital affair that Wilson had, as over 200 intimate letters to a certain Mary Allen Hulbert were later uncovered.
In 1916, Mexican revolutionary, Pancho Villa, raided Columbus, New Mexico, killing 18 Americans. This triggered Wilson into sicking the Army after him. Villa fled south, across the border, where General John J. Pershing led an expedition into Mexico to retrieve Pancho and bring him to justice. Unfortunately, they didn’t have much luck catching up to him and nearly started a war with Mexico in the process. After 11 months wandering around the Mexican desert, the troops returned home empty handed.
Wilson’s entire reelection campaign revolved around keeping America out of war and yet during his second term he went down in history as the President that got us involved in World War One, in an attempt to make “the world safe for democracy”. WWI was known as the ‘War to End all Wars’, but ended up being the catalyst for WWII and a dozen other wars throughout the 20th century.
America’s involvement in the “Great War” became extremely unpopular leading to the creation of the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918, which targeted anti-draft protesters. If that wasn’t enough of a slap in the face to civil liberties, Wilson also oversaw the furthering of segregation and Jim Crow laws discriminating against African Americans. And then there’s the 18th Amendment: Prohibition.
TLDR version for those who failed American history class in high school: Prohibition was a wholesale ban on alcohol. As you can probably guess, it was an epic failure. Much like the failed war on drugs, Prohibition caused waaay more problems than it ‘solved’ – including, but not limited to the creation of the mafia. Crime (especially organized crime) skyrocketed and people were still getting drunk, but now people were dying from tainted off-brand moonshine made in some random guy’s bathtub. (full article coming soon)
One major positive that did come from Wilson’s time in office? Women’s suffrage finally passed with the 19th Amendment on June 4th, 1919. It might not seem like much, but a time when women didn’t really have a say, this was a huge step towards equality…
Anyway, as WWI came to a close and the allies forced Germany into an armistice, Wilson convinced America’s allies to unite under The League of Nations. Although it was President Wilson’s creation, Congress shot down the idea of joining up with their European allies, because they thought it might drag us into another war. (spoiler alert: that happened anyway) The League of Nations ultimately failed, but it led to the creation of the United Nations during WWII. While Wilson was campaigning for America to join the League, his health took a nose dive…
On September 25th, 1919, Woodrow Wilson collapsed from mental and physical stress. On October 2nd, he suffered a severe stroke that left him partially paralyzed and severely brain damaged. With Wilson’s condition deteriorating by the day, Woodrow’s First Lady, Edith Wilson (second wife / former mistress) stepped in to help out – by basically being the President! It was later revealed in the 1990’s that with her husband all but unresponsive, Edith took charge, signed documents, passed along information, and basically made every key decision for him during his last couple of years in office. She even had a posed photograph taken that made it look she was being supportive while he signed documents!
So yeah, in everything but title, Edith Wilson was our first female president.
29 – WARREN G. HARDING
Presidential Years: 1921-1923
Political Party: Republican
Vice President: Calvin Coolidge
Ran Against: James M. Cox (Democrat)
First Lady: Florence Mabel Harding
Quote: “I have no trouble with my enemies. I can take care of my enemies all right. But my damn friends… They’re the ones that keep me walking the floor at nights!“
Best known for: The Teapot Dome Scandal
Random Fact: Owned a newspaper – the Marion Daily Star
Bio: To say that President Warren G. Harding’s term as President was a troubled one would be like saying maybe the Star Wars prequels could have been better. We’ve had some pretty corrupt politicians in the Oval Office, but few hold a candle to the Harding administration. Chester A. Arthur might’ve been one of the most corrupt politicians elected as President, but Warren G. Harding’s entire cabinet was brimming with corruption.
Senator Harding was elected to the Presidency with the help of big business and the empty promise of a “return to normalcy”. It was anything but. Sure he eased restrictions on immigration, fought for civil rights equality and was involved in numerous foreign treaties (including the Treaty of Paris), but he also rolled back some of the policies that combated corporate corruption in Washington and gave tax breaks to his wealthy friends.
Speaking of Harding’s wealthy friends – guess who his cabinet was made up of? His filthy rich buddies from the country club back in Ohio. Harding’s lawyer / campaign manager, Harry M. Daugherty was appointed as his Attorney General, where he became known as ’embezzler-in-chief’. He was even called to trial later on and plead the Fifth. Which doesn’t seem suspicious at all.
Next up there’s Charles R. Forbes, an Army deserter who Harding put in charge of the Veterans’ Bureau. Forbes managed to make a quarter of a billion in tax dollars by getting kickbacks for constructing veteran hospitals and diverting medical supplies to private dealers, just to line his pockets!
And then there’s the Teapot Dome Scandal…
In case it’s ever a question on “Who Wants to be a Millionaire”, the Teapot Dome Scandal involved one of the biggest white collar crimes in American politics. President Harding’s Secretary of the Interior, Albert B. Fall, was paid off to lease out American oil fields to private investors – The Teapot Dome fields in Wyoming were given to Harry F. Sinclair (of Sinclair Oil), while an oil deposit in Elk Hills, California was given to Fall’s buddy, Edward L. Doheny.
Turns out that both Doheny and Sinclair paid Fall over $400,000 (approx $4.8 million now). The Wall Street Journal actually broke the story in 1922, but an official investigation didn’t heed results until 1927! Albert B. Fall was found guilty and was thrown in prison, becoming the first Presidential cabinet member to serve jail time.
Warren G. Harding sold America off to the highest bidder.
Sure, you could argue that Harding didn’t actually steal any money himself, he just associated with and appointed the very people who then used those positions to carry out actual white collar crimes, but the same could probably be said for Daredevil’s arch-nemesis: Wilson Fisk (aka the Kingpin of Crime).
Oh and then there’s Warren’s personal life… Even among Presidents, Warren G. Harding slept around A LOT.
A few short years after marrying Florence Mabel Kling, Warren decided to get jiggy with her best friend, Susie Hodder and even had a daughter with her! Another one of Florence’s friends, Carrie Phillips, also became one of his mistresses. Carrie (an actual Nazi sympathizer) threatened to go public, but was silenced with a small bribe of $20,000. And that was before he was president! The night before his inauguration, Harding slept with Grace Cross, a typist who worked for him. During his presidency he actually knocked up Nan Britton, Augusta Cole and Rosa Hoyle! Britton even wrote a book about it, but no one believed her till genetic tests proved it a century later. Other affairs included Blossom Jones, Maize Haywood and a certain Miss Allicott. And that’s just the ones we know about! (Just to be clear that’s 9 affairs all together, and people gave Bill Clinton got impeached over one)
If all that’s not bad enough, the dude threw a kegger IN the White House DURING prohibition! The President and his bros got drunk, played poker, and gambled away the White House china (no joke, look it up!).
There’s a reason Warren G. Harding is often at the top (bottom?) of the list of worst Presidents ever, because he really did suck at his job and might have even been impeached if he hadn’t suddenly died unexpectedly. Harding’s VP, Calvin Coolidge, might have been a huge step up, but even that guy sorta caused the Great Depression, so… yeah… Warren G. Harding was without a doubt one of our absolute worst Presidents.
Harding himself once said, “I am not fit for this office and never should have been here.”
Can’t say I disagree Mr. President, can’t say I disagree…
30 – CALVIN COOLIDGE
Presidential Years: 1923-1929
Political Party: Republican
Vice President: Vacant / Charles G. Dawes
Ran Against: John W. Davis (Democrat), Robert M. Follette (Progressive)
First Lady: Grace Coolidge
Quote: “Don’t expect to build up the weak by pulling down the strong.“
Best known for: Being stoic and soft spoken – earned the nickname “Silent Cal”
Random Fact: Was born on July 4th
Bio: Calvin Coolidge was Warren G. Harding’s Vice President until Harding suddenly and unexpectedly died (while on a speaking tour in San Francisco), of a heart attack brought on by doctors treating his pneumonia with caffeine pills. In a number of ways, Coolidge surpassed Harding (not exactly a challenge), so much so that he won reelection.
During his time in office, President Coolidge managed to clean up the rampant corruption that had plagued his predecessor. He also worked for civil rights by passing anti-lynching laws and signed the Indian Citizenship Act, but then again he also signed a bill that banned immigrants from Mexico, Japan and about half of Europe.
Coolidge, the former Governor of Massachusetts, presided over America during the ‘Roaring Twenties’, a period of renewed economic prosperity and optimism (go read “The Great Gatsby”). Unfortunately, that also means that he was in part responsible for the massive credit bubble that resulted in a little cataclysm known as THE GREAT DEPRESSION! (more on that in a future article) He governed in a very hands-off fashion, gave huge tax breaks to the wealthy and kinda let big business do its thing. So yeah, if there’s one person who deserves the blame for that economic disaster it’s this guy.
Mostly, Calvin Coolidge kept to himself and didn’t make a lot of public appearances. But the people who did know him, didn’t exactly have the nicest things to say about him. Calvin might very well have been bipolar, because he would sometimes flip the hell out at his staff over the smallest things and other times he would goof off and play hide-and-seek with the secret service by buzzing for them and then hiding under the White House desk like a four year old. Which almost caused a legit emergency lock down of the premises.
And that’s not even the weirdest thing about Coolidge, he also had a pet hippo and would often claim that he spoke to his long dead mother and recently departed son. And if that’s not weird enough, he was also raised by his grandmother who would lock him in the attic as a punishment for anything he did wrong.
Most notably though, Calvin was a man of few words. He even earned the nickname “Silent Cal” because he spoke less than Silent Bob.
This one time, a lady tried to make light conversation with him, saying, “I made a bet today that I could get more than two words out of you.”
His curt response? “You lose.” – and then he presumably turned away leaving the woman with an awkward moment of silence before she slowly backed away.
Silent Cal once wrote, “The words of a President have an enormous weight, and ought not to be used indiscriminately.” Years later, when Coolidge died, Dorothy Parker reportedly said, “How can they tell?!”
31 – HERBERT HOOVER
Presidential Years: 1929-1933
Political Party: Republican
Vice President: Charles Curtis
Ran Against: Alfred E. Smith (Democrat)
First Lady: Lou Henry Hoover
Quote: “Blessed are the young, for they shall inherit the national debt.“
Best known for: The Hoover Dam… and being the President of the Great Depression…
Random Fact: Used to play volleyball with a medicine ball!?
Bio: The year Herbert Hoover became President just so happened to be the year that the Wall Street Stock Market crashed and burned. October 24th, 1929, became known as “Black Thursday” when investors nervously started selling off all of their shares and a few days later 5,000 banks declared bankruptcy. The entire American economy tanked overnight. The Great Depression had begun…
No matter what he did, President Hoover would forever take the blame for the economic crisis, despite the fact that Calvin Coolidge and Warren G. Harding were far more directly responsible. 9 million people had just lost their life savings and they wanted someone to blame. Hoover was somewhat slow to act, but at least attempted to alleviate the situation. Unfortunately, his plan was a form of ‘trickle down’ economics: by giving huge tax breaks to the wealthy to help the poor.
It didn’t work.
Hoover didn’t seem to grasp the severity of the situation when he said “Nobody is actually starving.” The thousands of jobless men, women and children living in shanty towns outside of cities soon became known as ‘Hoover-villes’ and they dubbed the old newspapers they slept under as ‘Hoover-blankets’. The absolute lowest point of Hoover’s presidency happened in July, 1932: The Bonus Army incident…
Somewhere between 12,000 and 15,000 unemployed World War One veterans along with their families marched on Washington DC, demanding benefits that had been promised to them years earlier. The ‘Bonus Army’ set up camp outside of the Capitol in protest. In denial, President Hoover saw the demonstration of desperate veterans as a communist conspiracy to overthrow the government. Hoover decided to respond with force by sending in an actual army to disperse the veterans with tanks and tear gas. General Douglas MacArthur gave them one hour to vacate. The entire encampment was burned away. Several were severely wounded and even killed, including children.
Perhaps the one good thing that he’s best known for his the creation of the Hoover Dam, which was technically signed off on by Coolidge. The Hoover Dam was a massive undertaking, but President Hoover saw it as a good opportunity to generate some much needed jobs, so he put his full support behind it. The dam was built outside of Boulder City, Nevada, on the border of Arizona and the Colorado River. It used Lake Mead as a reservoir to generate hydro electric power. The dam is still in use today and generates a large portion of electricity for the city of Las Vegas. The insane project cost a whopping $49 million dollars ($700 million in today’s money)! Construction began in 1931 and employed between 3,000 and 6,000 workers until it’s grand opening in 1936.
Unfortunately, it was too little too late for Hoover, as he was booted from office after his first term. That’s when FDR stepped up to bat with a New Deal…
Thanks for reading! If you’re a fan of the blog, be sure to listen to the Epik Fails of History podcast and check out my all new “EPIC FAILS” book series – available now wherever books are sold! “EPIC FAILS: Not-So-Great Presidents” hits shelves on January 15th, 2019.
American Presidents: Life Portraits (C-SPAN)