I chuckled at the news last week that Barack Obama is related to Dick Cheney.Â The two are eighth cousins, both descended from a Huguenot French ancestor in the 1700â€™s. A spokesman for Obama claimed with a finely tuned barb that Cheney is the â€œblack sheepâ€ of the family. But the strange connection between these political polar opposites comes as no surprise, given the plethora of quirky incidents buried in the back-stories of our countryâ€™s presidents.Â
George W. Bush, for instance, is related to Franklin Roosevelt, Humphrey Bogart, and Alec Baldwin.Â (Who would the black sheep be in that family?)Â All are descended from John Howland and Elizabeth Tilley, who came across on the Mayflower in 1620.Â And none of them might have had a chance to be born except for a dramatic rescue at sea on the Mayflower that saved Howland from sleeping with the fishes.
That’s just one of the stories in my new book The Greatest Presidential Stories Never Told, published by Harper Collins in conjunction with The History Channel.Â And there are many others just as captivating. Imagine the jokes if the first president of our country (not to mention the nationâ€™s capital) were named Hertburn. It could easily have happened. Back in 1183, the King of England gave a knight named William De Hertburn the village of Wessyington in return for his services.Â De Hertburn showed his gratitude by changing his name to Wessyington. (It probably didnâ€™t take a lot of convincing.)Â Over the years that became corrupted to…oh I think you can guessâ€¦Washington.Â And so we were saved from â€œHertburn, D.C.â€ Although we still get heartburn over what happens there.Â
It isnâ€™t only presidentsâ€™ pedigrees that hold such tasty pieces of history candy.Â Thereâ€™s the things they did while they were working their way up to the top job.Â Grover Cleveland was a hangman.Â Abraham Lincoln took part in a duelâ€”the broad sword was his weapon of choice. Lyndon Johnson effectively launched his political career in a bathroomâ€”with no toe tapping. Richard Nixon engineered a break-in at law school. Jimmy Carter once filed a UFO report.Â And Jerry Ford was a glamorous NY model.Â (No, Iâ€™m not making that up. He was actually on the cover of Cosmo back in the day, and also had a spread in Life magazine.)
And letâ€™s not overlook their behavior while they were in the White house.Â John Quincy Adams liked to swim naked every day in the Potomac. Sometimes people came out and hid behind the bushes to watch.Â (That would be quite a tourist draw today.)Â Thomas Jefferson wrote his own version of the gospel; apparently Mathew, Mark, Luke and John werenâ€™t quite enough for him.Â Woodrow Wilson raised sheep on the White House lawn to demonstrate his support for the troops.Â (In case youâ€™re wondering, the sheep meant that the Wilsons could reduce the size of the landscaping crew, and also sell the wool for charity.)Â No mention if there were any black sheep there.
What are the odds, you might ask, when looking at the cousinage of Obama and Cheney? But what are the odds that a president could have someone walk up to him, try to fire two pistols from eight feet away, and have both of them misfire? It happened to Andrew Jackson, and experts say the odds were 125,000 to one against it.Â About the same as the odds that Dick Cheney will someday appear on the Daily Show with John Stewart. What, for that matter, are the odds that one president could have had his life saved by a song, another by a speech, and another by a movie he made 42 years earlier? Yet each of those things happened.Â
Itâ€™s the same for the candidates as it is for the 43 men who have held the nationâ€™s highest office. (50 men if you include the 7 presidents before Washington, but thatâ€™s another story.) We know what makes them famous. Itâ€™s what we donâ€™t know that makes them endlessly fascinating.
Read a review of the book.
Check out the transcript of my live chat from October 25, 2007.