Noah is a senior double majoring in mathematics and theatre, where he specializes in network theory and lighting design, respectively. His first foray into political activism came in the late 1990s in Seattle, when he was as involved as an 8-year-old can be in the WTO protests, and continued campaigning and running voter registration drives until he graduated high school. Since his family moved to Columbia, South Carolina in 2003, he has written political commentary as a response to the remarkably efficient headline machine that is the South Carolina political system. Noah has been a member of VPR since his freshman year.
I mentioned in my last piece that this story was inspired by xkcd (which, just in case you tried to pronounce it, is a webcomic whose title means absolutely nothing), and then failed to explain why or how. So first of all, here’s the comic. It goes through every Presidential election and assigns each of them a “precedent” that election broke (some of which are as contrived as “tall Midwesterners are unbeatable”). So my chosen task for this week is to go through a few major (or not so major) milestones met by Presidential candidates. As usual, we’ll start at the very beginning:
The first President was elected in 1788, and if any of you don’t know his name, there is no hope for humanity.
The first President with non-mainstream religious beliefs was Thomas Jefferson, who rejected the idea of an interventionist God in favor of the Deist reliance on reason and the laws of nature. Religion was something of an assumed quantity in politics for most of the United States’ history, even though many major figures from before the 20th Century identified most strongly with Deism or Unitarianism (including John Adams, John Quincy Adams, and John C. Calhoun of all people) or something else similar.
The first President with no White House experience was Andrew Jackson, elected in 1828 (after losing the heavily disputed 1824 vote to John Quincy Adams). Jackson is one of the more polarizing Presidents in history, as some people regard him as one of the strongest occupants of the Oval Office, while others see him as governed by racism (demonstrated by atrocities such as the Trail of Tears). He had served as a Congressman, and was a war hero from the War of 1812, which I believe I mentioned two weeks ago.
The first President to die in office was William Henry Harrison, who died of pneumonia contracted when he refused to wear an overcoat delivering his inauguration speech. This also precluded him from enacting much interesting policy, so I don’t have much to say here except to encourage all you young people to wear your parkas.
The first President with no national government experience was Zachary Taylor, who is also the first President elected without having previously held any elected office whatsoever. A few more interesting facts about Taylor include: he was the last President to hold slaves while in office, the only President elected from Louisiana, and was the first (and perhaps only) vehemently Unionist Southerner prior to the Civil War.
The first President to be assassinated in office was Abraham Lincoln, in 1865. Lincoln is more frequently remembered for such pieces of rhetorical genius as the Gettysburg Address, for being a human skyscraper, and for presiding over the winning side in the Civil War, but while all of these are important aspects of his Presidency, none of them are milestones. And the assassination was his first true “first” in office, particularly since Zachary Taylor’s stance on rebels was quite nearly as stringent as Lincoln’s.
The first President to be elected to non-consecutive terms was Grover Cleveland, elected in 1884 and 1892. These two terms were sandwiched around Benjamin Harrison, who was the first President directly descended from a previous President, and the only “legacy President” whose predecessor died in office.
The first President to require remodeling the residence bathroom was William Howard Taft, who did not fit in the White House bathtub. I really don’t know what else to say here.
The first handicapped President was Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He also is the only person to have served more than two terms, a limit unofficially imposed by George Washington and made Constitutional with the Twenty-Second Amendment in 1951, but I’m frankly more interested in the wheelchair. Multiple elections is a testament to his popularity and success in office, but his election (and reelection in 1944) despite being unable to walk demonstrates a shift in voter priorities, and that’s really what these milestones should be about.
The first President to resign from office was Richard Nixon, in 1974. Andrew Johnson had been impeached by the House of Representatives, but had not resigned and was acquitted by the Senate, the same as Bill Clinton in 1998.
The first professional actor to be elected President was Ronald Reagan in 1980. Reagan was also the first horrifically bad actor to be elected President, and the only film actor to serve in the Oval Office. Additionally, he was the first candidate to be boosted by the efforts of the Christian Coalition and the Moral Majority, two alliterative organizations which set the stage for today’s obsession with religion and evangelism in politics.
The first non-Caucasian President was Barack Obama, elected in 2008. It is currently impossible to tell what effect this will have on future political (or social) relations, so there isn’t terribly much I can say about this at this point. Unlike most other pundits, I tend to want history to write itself, and try not to comment on events which have yet to unfold fully, although even I give in to the temptation all too frequently.
And…that’s it. For now. A few election cycles later, this piece may require an update. However, given the extent to which politicians seem to mimic each other these days, I’m not getting my hopes up. Attracting voters is very much like attracting a mate in the rest of nature: the candidates spread their plumage and scream at each other until the public decides which of them they want to live with for the next four years. And today’s candidates are rather like this. They’ll repeat anything they think will help, including something as…problematic…as a bird sounding eerily like a chainsaw.
Next week’s article will be: “Live Free and Diebold.” No, Bruce Willis will not be guest writing, so you’re all stuck with me again. Apologies.
Until next week, then!