Errors slip into book on 'Oval Office Oddities'

February 5, 2008 3:30:01 PM PST
"Oval Office Oddities: An Irreverent Collection of Presidential Facts, Follies, and Foibles" by Bill Fawcett.

It's time again for presidential candidates to drag bones or worse from each other's closets and chirp endlessly about their cures for all that ails us.

Bill Fawcett's new book "Oval Office Oddities" puts the winning worthies in a different light. Some, and their families, were a bit strange. Some had the warmth of a cabbage. Some were surprisingly human.

Fawcett claims no historical depth here, just fun, and "Oddities" is mostly a gentle tug on Uncle Sam's whiskers, a lighter approach to the gradual erosion of reverence toward the presidency, and, selectively, its occupants.

It coincides with David Mamet's new play "November," about a fictional president with numbers "lower than Gandhi's cholesterol," which, the New Yorker says, tells us that "we live in an age of equality: all classes are criminal," and an often-impolite approach to the countdown to the end of the Bush administration.

We can chuckle at Warren Harding, who was "denser than a box of rocks and was only put into office by his wife" and at many presidents (including Harding) who tap-danced freely through the Seventh Commandment. Or at Woodrow Wilson's first wife, who liked to sleep with a pistol under her pillow in the White House.

Then there's Grover Cleveland, the only president known personally to have hanged a man - as sheriff of Buffalo, N.Y.

But errors in a book of minutiae are unhealthy, and a few have slipped in.

For example, John Adams did NOT write the U.S. Constitution - he wasn't even there. If one person holds the honor, it is, by most accounts, James Madison. The United States did not arrange a revolt against Venezuela to snatch away Panama for the Panama Canal. We pinched it from Colombia. Harding and Coolidge were NOT both the 30th president.

A few other mistakes appear to be largely editing oversights, but the book still makes its point: These guys at their roots were human beings, and many shared our hang-ups, quirks and eccentricities.

-When the Library of Congress caught fire in 1851, President Millard Fillmore did what any good neighbor would do. He ran out to join the volunteers fighting it.

-Eleanor Roosevelt once served hot dogs to the king and queen of England and Bess Truman was so unimpressed with service in the nation's capital that she had her laundry sent back to Kansas City, Mo., to be done.

Pets? Martin Van Buren had two tiger cubs and John Quincy Adams kept an alligator, both briefly. Taft kept a milk cow on the White House lawn. Sheep replaced her during Wilson's administration. If it had four feet chances are it was a White House pet at one time.

Part of the book's charm is that it can be opened anywhere. Just start reading. There are no plots to get in the way.

You will read that:

-Richard Nixon weighed almost 11 pounds at birth and often signed notes he wrote to his family as "the President."

-President Grant, who headed the Union Army in the Civil War, owned slaves.

Fawcett offers "hundreds of glimpses of the American presidents, first ladies and even vice presidents as flawed, loving, hating, and burping human beings," the introduction says, and he does.

But before you make high-dollar bar bets on the information in the book, do some homework.

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