BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Richard Shenkman, author of "Presidential Ambition: How The Presidents Gained Power, Kept Power, and Got Things Done," who was the first president to ever lie to us?
Mr. RICHARD SHENKMAN (Author, "Presidential Ambition"): Thomas Jefferson--went to the Congress, said that he wanted 2 million bucks to go beef up our defense down on what was then the southern border with Florida. Florida was owned by Spain. And he said he needed the $2 million to beef up defense because Indians were coming across and raiding farms, and black slaves from Southern plantations were escaping into Florida and going to their freedom.
It wasn't what he wanted the 2 million bucks for. He wanted to pay a bribe to Napoleon, who had a lot of sway over Spain, so that Spain would sell us Florida. No deal ever happened, but he kept that quiet from the American public and from the Congress for a very simple reason: No American president wants to go to the American people and say, `I need 2 million bucks to pay a bribe.' Remember that old thing about millions for defense, but not one cent for tribute? Well, Jefferson was between a rock and a hard place. He didn't want to have to admit that he was paying tribute, and he didn't want to really go to war over this. So he thought, `Well, we'll do a bribe. We'll do it secretly.' He lied about it.
LAMB: Who was the first president that lied to us about his health?
Mr. SHENKMAN: Now this is a big topic. This--this could take the whole rest of the hour. No president lied about his health until the 21st president; that was Chester Arthur. The first 20 presidents never lied about their health, and yet, they had bad health all the time. George Washington, a year after taking office, got pneumonia, nearly died from it. Thomas Jefferson, during his first term, had constant diarrhea. He was always sick. It's one of the reasons why he was always going back to Monticello, because his physician said, `If you do a lot of horseback riding, somehow that's gonna be a solution.' Who knows? That was the--the--the--not--not much of a cure.
Jackson--abscesses constantly in his arm, in his lungs from bullet wounds. He'd been in a bar brawl and taken a shot. He was coughing up blood constantly. He could never get through a whole eight hours of sleep at night. He had terrible health problems. Then, of course, you come to Abe Lincoln, melancholia. He really was the first president who probably should have been on Prozac. He was depressed all the time.
But if you look in the papers, there's no public debate, no discussion about their health. Then, all of a sudden, Chester Arthur comes down with Bright's disease while he's president, and he starts lying about it. Why?
LAMB: What's the--what's Bright's disease?
Mr. SHENKMAN: Bright's disease is a fatal kidney disorder. It killed him two years after he left the White House, and his last year was a terrible time spent where he couldn't get out of bed. He'd stay in bed for weeks at time--a terrible disorder. So what's going on here? What's happening? In 1881, the very reason why Chester Arthur became president, James Garfield gets shot, but he doesn't immediately die, unlike Lincoln. He lingers for about two and a half months.
The White House starts issuing bulletins constantly, three, four times a day, on the president's condition. The American public gets accustomed to the idea that the president's health is a subject for public consumption. And newspapers, which are just now becoming big businesses trying to attract lots of readers, they discover something else. Every time they put a big, fat headline on the president's health, they sell more newspapers. You get those two forces coming together, and from Chester Arthur, the 21st president, on, all the presidents start facing questions from reporters about their health. And as soon as they face questions, they start lying about it.
I'll run through the list real quickly. I told you, you--you opened a can of worms with this one. This is a big one. We've got Arthur lying about having Bright's disease, this fatal kidney disorder.
Very next president, Grover Cleveland, he comes down with cancer, has a secret cancer operation while he's president, doesn't even tell the Cabinet or his vice president about it. There's a conspiracy of silence about this. He only lets a very few people know about it because there are all kinds of repercussions if this word gets out that he's gonna be operated on for cancer. So what happens? He keeps it quiet. The press finds out about it. He lies, and then they drop it. They're not used to a president lying yet, and so they're willing to kind of give him the benefit of the doubt.
Woodrow Wilson, running for office, pretends to be in perfect health. It turns out that he had had two strokes as a young historian and a president of Princeton--two strokes. One kept him for several months with one side of his body partly paralyzed.
Keep going--I'll keep going here. Calvin Coolidge--you know, his famous line is, `I choose not to run in 1928'? Well, everybody said, `What a mystery. What's going on here?' He had suffered a mild heart attack while he was president, but he concealed that from the American public. And in concealing it, in fact, he's deceiving the public about what's really going on.
Franklin Roosevelt, of course, runs for a fourth term. He's a dying man, pretends that he's a well man.
And then my favorite story of all the presidents lying about their health--and, by the way, they tell more lies about their health than about any other single subject. Dwight Eisenhower--1949, three years before he runs for president, he suffers a heart attack. He goes into a hospital in Florida, I believe, and he is incapacitated there for a month. His doctor, Dr. Schneider, keeps it a big secret because he knows that Ike is thinking about running for president. Ike is the great war hero, but he's also getting on in years. And, in fact, by the time he runs in '52, he's the oldest man at that time ever to run for the presidency. And so you don't want to have even a whisper of a heart attack. They kept it quiet. We didn't find out about this until about five years ago.
And then last but not least, of course, you've got John Kennedy with Addison's disease, a very severe adrenal disorder. And, you know, th--here's a guy who couldn't get out of bed in the morning without being shot full of drugs. At the Democratic Convention in 1960, Lyndon Johnson, a rival for the office of the presidency, leaked the word to reporters, `John Kennedy suffers from Addison's disease. He may die from it. It's very terrible. You gotta ask him questions.' Reporters ask questions, John Kennedy holds a press conference. He says, `I don't have Addison's disease,' a flat-out lie.
So they have told lots of lies about their health. It's the one area where they feel--at least, it is one of the areas where they feel it's their personal business; nobody has a right to ask them questions.
LAMB: You write that U.S. Grant was the first president to reside over an administration filled with people who wanted to use government connections to become rich.
Mr. SHENKMAN: Yeah. Yeah. It's a sea change in American history. You know, really, before the Civil War, most Americans weren't rich. There really wasn't a chance to become rich in America. The best way to become rich was, if you either inherited the money or you were a land speculator; you were buying up cheap land in the West, and then as people moved West, you sold it at boom prices. George Washington did this. That's one of the ways in which he became one of the richest men in America at the time that he was alive.
What's happening now, after the Civil War, is all of a sudden, it's easy to become rich. There's Wall Street, which is developing as an institution for the first time. You've got insurance companies that seem to have millions of dollars in cash on hand, and there's a lot of sense of opportunity to make money. And it's drawing people from the farm, where you don't really make money, to the cities, where you've got this big chance. And now even the people who are joining government service, all of a sudden they get the idea, `You know, I see Jay Cooke out there making millions on the stock market. Why can't I benefit a little bit?' And they start getting their hand in the cookie jar. And you have four Cabinet secretaries under Grant who are implicated in either frauds or financial scandals and multiple numbers of people lower in the administration.
LAMB: Two h--you say 230 indictments and 110 convictions during Grant's term?
Mr. SHENKMAN: Yeah. What you've got that's very, very interesting about Grant--and nobody ever ex--hears about this because Grant is really remembered for being the great hero of the Civil War. He helped win the--win the Civil War for Abe Lincoln and--and the North, of course. His, in effect, chief of staff--we would call him a chief of staff; they called him then a secretary--it was a fellow by the name of Orville Babcock. And Babcock was one of the leaders of what was known as the whiskey ring. The whiskey ring, simply put, was hundreds of people in government, out of government, all affiliated with the distillery industry out in the Midwest--Chicago, St. Louis--and they wanted to somehow evade the high federal tax that had been put on--during the Civil War on liquor, on alcohol. And they concocted all kinds of schemes to evade those taxes. Babcock is helping direct this incredible scheme, costing the government--the federal government millions of dollars every year. And he's sitting right next to Grant's office in the White House.
Grant protects him when he finds out that Babcock is implicated in this. In fact, one day, he holds a Cabinet meeting. He is going to take an emergency train, run down to St. Louis, where Babcock was being put on trial on these charges; he'd had a leave of absence from the White House while he was under indictment and then put on trial. And Grant's gonna go down there and testify on his behalf. The Cabinet says, `Oh, no. This is terrible. You can't do this. This closely associates you with scandal.' Grant says, `Fine. I'm gonna give out a deposition, then.'
And so he, right there in the White House, takes a couple of hours, fills out a deposition swearing that if Orville Babcock is guilty, why, then Grant is guilty. And that turned the trial instead of it being about the guilt or innocence of Orville Babcock, the guilt or innocence of President Ulysses S. Grant, hero of the Civil War. Well, what do you think happens? Babcock, of course, gets acquitted.
Grant, unbelievably, despite all the evidence that's out there--and everybody knows that the guy's really guilty--brings him back into the White House. Well, Grant's a Republican. The Republican Party says, `We're gonna lose the next election if you do this.' So in a matter of days, Babcock is demoted from the job. He's taken out of that job. But Grant still lets him keep another job, so he remained on the federal payroll. It's a fascinating story of corruption.
What Grant--the sea change and what the book is about is a lot of the sea changes here, about a dozen sea changes in American history, where I show how this larger force of history changes how presidents behave. And here it is, this large force of history is money and the economy, money and the country changing people and then how presidents react. And the change here, very simply, is Grant reacting to corruption around him, seeing that his closest friends are being caught up in it. And he learns to do what all presidents after, which is tolerate a certain amount of corruption, because if you go after it all religiously, like a Giuliani in New York, and you're just a tough prosecutor and you get it all, you wind up blowing up your administration. So you learn to look the other way.
LAMB: How many men have been president?
Mr. SHENKMAN: Forty-one.
LAMB: Who served the longest term?
Mr. SHENKMAN: Franklin Roosevelt.
LAMB: Who shor--served the shortest term?
Mr. SHENKMAN: William Henry Harrison, one month.
LAMB: How many of the 41 men wanted to run for more than two terms and tried?
Mr. SHENKMAN: Oh, several. Several. And this is an interesting story. Teddy Roosevelt considered the time that he spent in, really, his first term, where he took office after McKinley died--he considered that his first term, and then he was elected in 1904, and he considered that his second term. Of course, he then tries to run as the Bull Moose candidate in 1912 against Woodrow Wilson and William Howard Taft, and that would have been his third term.
Interestingly to me, the most fascinating case was Woodrow Wilson. After he suffers his stroke, following the Versailles conference in--in Paris, he--or in Versailles, I guess; that's the--I'll be precise about it--Wilson decides--he recovers enough, and he decides that he is going to run for a third term. The man can't hold a two-minute conversation with the members of his Cabinet, but he is so caught up in the job and his destiny to be president--at some point, you know, these guys get to the point where they can't think of themselves not being president anymore. It's so a part of their identity.
He--he decides to run, and he sends his son-in-law to the Democratic Convention to actually try to drum up votes. Of course, there were no votes for Wilson. The Democrats couldn't get away from him fast enough 'cause they knew he was a loser in the--in the election. But he's a very fascinating case.
Harry Truman after Stevenson--Harry Truman, of course, leaves the office, 1952. Adlai Stevenson runs as the Democratic candidate against Eisenhower. Stevenson distances himself from the Truman administration, which was then sunk in scandal. Good ol' Harry, looking at this, says, `I'm kind of appalled,' and he starts to rethink maybe he should run--he should have run for another term. It gets in their blood.
LAMB: What about Grant?
Mr. SHENKMAN: Oh, yeah, you got Grant. He tried to run for a third term.
LAMB: Anybody care?
Mr. SHENKMAN: Yeah, he almost made it. He almost made it. He ran for two terms, and then the Republicans were happy to see him go because there was so much corruption, all the corruption we were talking about earlier. He goes off to Europe. He's like a royal prince of America, and he goes on this fantastic goodwill tour of all these countries. He's treated like he's the messiah, and he gets a big head. He gets relaxed, and he wants to come back and be president again. He runs for the Republican nomination, and he almost gets it. But enough Republicans said, `You know, if we run with this guy, we're gonna lose because it's gonna bring all that baggage about corruption again, and--and who wants that?'
LAMB: Let me ask you a bunch of little questions. Who's the smartest man to be president, in your opinion?
Mr. SHENKMAN: Oh, I don't know. Woodrow Wilson was a pretty smart guy. Jimmy Carter was a pretty smart guy. I happen to think Bill Clinton is one of the brightest guys we ever had as president.
LAMB: Who's the dumbest?
Mr. SHENKMAN: Well, that's easy: Warren Harding. He wins hands down.
LAMB: Why is that easy?
Mr. SHENKMAN: Well, even he admitted he was too dumb to be president, and yet, he still ran. But even he said, `I'm too dumb to be president.' There's a famous story with him, and I think it's told by William Allen White, who was a Midwestern journalist. And one day, Harding unburdened himself to White in the Oval Office, and what White reported afterwards was that Harding was saying, `You know, I'm just too dumb for this job. One economist comes in here, and he tells me what I ought to do and it sounds great. And then another economist comes in here, and he tells me what I ought to do and that sounds great. And, darn it, I can't figure out what I'm supposed to do. Isn't there somebody who can tell what I'm supposed to do?' This is pathetic. This is from the president of the United States.
LAMB: Who was the oldest?
Mr. SHENKMAN: The oldest president probably, I guess, must have been Reagan by the time he--by the time he left office.
LAMB: Who started as the oldest? I guess it would have been Ronald Reagan.
Mr. SHENKMAN: It would have been--it would have been Reagan or Eisenhower. I'm not--yeah, it had--would ha...
LAMB: Who's the youngest?
Mr. SHENKMAN: Would have--have to be Reagan.
LAMB: The youngest ever to be president?
Mr. SHENKMAN: The youngest was Teddy Roosevelt. At age 42, he takes over the Oval Office from McKinley. And then the youngest elected president was John Kennedy in 1960.
LAMB: Who was the biggest ladies man?
Mr. SHENKMAN: Well, now there's--that's a--you're trying to get me in trouble here, aren't you? All right. Well, I--Bill Clinton's gotta be up there. John Kennedy's got to be up there. Lyndon Johnson certainly has got to be up there. A surprising choice, from the 19th century, James Garfield. In fact, he probably had a menage a trois at one point. He was quite a ladies--a ladies man in hi--in his youth?
LAMB: How do you know that?
Mr. SHENKMAN: Well, his biographers have gone through his papers, and they found a correspondence that he had with his wife and with some of these other ladies. And you don't have to really read far between the lines to see what's going on.
LAMB: Who had the best marriage?
Mr. SHENKMAN: Now that's a good question. You know, I always watch you, and I know that you always ask these--these questions, and there--there--there are always a--there's always a ringer in there. Well, this is the ringer. I tried to anticipate every question. Who had the best marriage? Well, Ronald Reagan had a pretty darned good marriage, so let's--let's give Ronald Reagan credit for having the best marriage. I don't know. This is arbitrary.
LAMB: How was the Truman marriage?
Mr. SHENKMAN: Oh, the Truman marriage was great. In fact, it's almost inexplicable. You can't quite understand what's going on here. Harry Truman falls in love with his wife-to-be, and she turns him down. And he pursues her for nine years before finally getting the OK. `Yes, now you finally made something of yourself. I think I'll get married to you,' over and against the wishes of her mother and the Wallace family, which was a--considered themselves a little bit higher up than the Truman family. So it's just a--it's a puzzle what--what was going on with Truman, why he was willing to--to wait that long.
LAMB: Who had a bad marriage?
Mr. SHENKMAN: Oh, gosh, we've had lots of presidents with bad marriages. John Kennedy, of course, had a bad marriage. I'll tell you what was surprising was--you know, the LBJ tapes that were just released in the last year. Michael Beschloss edited the book of transcripts, and then they put out a cassette version of the tapes. And I was fascinated to listen to the tapes and see just how inextricably linked Lady Bird was with Lyndon.
Their marriage was a lot better than I ever suspected it was because he's constantly on the phone with people and saying, `Well, I gotta check with Lady Bird about this,' and, `Let me--let me get on the phone with Lady Bird.' And he's constantly calling her all throughout the day, time and again, time and again, making you think that he must have had a pretty good marriage, even though he cheated on the side and she knew that he cheated.
She has a great line. You know, she--she said, `Look, my husband loved people, and half the people in the world are women. So, of course, I know that he's gonna be falling in love with a lot of women.'
LAMB: Why is it in recent years--and you write about it--that people are talking about James Buchanan as the only homosexual president in history?
Mr. SHENKMAN: Yeah, it's possible. I--I do a long section on Buchanan, and I--and this subject manages to come up, and it's possible. There's no hard evidence from Buchanan's own letters, but his best friend was a guy named Rufus King, who happened to be the vice president under Franklin Pierce. Pierce was the president who served just before Buchanan took office. And King's letters are very incriminating. For instance, he goes off to Paris as the US, in effect, ambassador to France, and he writes back to Buchanan, with whom he had been room mates for, like, 20 years in a Washington boarding house, and he says, `You know, this job really should go to somebody who's more of a man than I am to take advantage of all these opportunities here.' That gives you some kind of an indication.
But, of course, Buchanan is our only bachelor president, and there were lots of rumors at the time that he may have been homosexual, although they didn't quite call it that. One of James Polk's law partners referred to Buchanan and King--Rufus King--as Mr. and Mrs. Buchanan. So there is kind of a little--if you read between the lines, there's a little something there.
LAMB: And you say they called Rufus King `Aunt Fancy'?
Mr. SHENKMAN: Aunt Fancy, right.
LAMB: And he was the only bachelor vice president.
Mr. SHENKMAN: And he's the only bachelor vice president we've ever had. It's just a very, very interesting--interesting thing. Now Buchanan claimed to have been in love with one woman. This is a sign of his ambition, you know. The book is about presidents who are ambitious, and what I tried to do was go into those stories which really illuminate just how ambitious they are. Buchanan not only goes after somebody who's the daughter of a--a rich guy, he goes after the daughter of probably the richest man in the United States. This is a fellow who's an iron master in--in western Pennsylvania. His name, Coleman.
And Buchanan goes after his daughter, Anne. And as soon as he gets engaged, and now he's kind of like solved that--you can almost see him. It's like checking off his little career. `OK, now I've--now I've done this. Now I can move on.' And he goes back to his legal career, and he totally ignores her, as if he really isn't interested in her; he's just interested in her for her money. Well, her father starts to think that, and then she starts to think that because he's not paying any attention to her.
And then what happens is--and it's a horrible ending to the story--she breaks off the engagement, is totally distraught, goes off to Philadelphia to spend some time recovering with her sister and two weeks later is dead--drops dead. Does she kill herself? We don't know. Her doctor says it's the first case of a person dying from hysteria that he'd ever come across. I don't know if she died from hysteria or not, but Buchanan claimed afterwards that's why he never married was because he was just lovesick over this woman. But you kind of feel like there were some other issues going on in here as well, and I--I give what I hope is a nuance interpretation?
LAMB: What book is this for you?
Mr. SHENKMAN: This is number five.
LAMB: What was the--you've done other presidential books. What was the last presidential book you did?
Mr. SHENKMAN: Well, this is the only one where I'm totally devoted to the presidents. I had a couple chapters on the presidents in my second book, "Legends, Lies and Cherished Myths of American History." But this is the first one--I've been thinking about presidents 20--23 years ago, I spent a year at the Andrew Jackson Papers at the Hermitage in Nashville. I was just a low-level researcher. Nobody there could even remember me. But I did some appendices and I spent most of my days trying to figure out his handwriting, which was as bad as his spelling. Jackson had a great line about spelling. He said, `I never thought much of man who could only think of one way to spell a word.'
LAMB: How did you get yourself to the Hermitage in Nashville?
Mr. SHENKMAN: Well, I was a history student at Vassar College. I graduated in '76. And then I went to work at the New York Historical Society library for the summer, and I was looking for a job for the next year. And somebody there knew Sam Smith, who was running the papers of Andrew Jackson. And there were some connections, calls were made and I was in the South, all of a sudden.
LAMB: Where do you live now?
Mr. SHENKMAN: Seattle's my home, although I'm spending a lot of time in DC because I do research at the Library of Congress, and now I'm doing--teaching a course. It's an adjunct lecture in journalism at American University.
LAMB: Who's Bill McClure?
Mr. SHENKMAN: He's my partner.
LAMB: And you--you say here that, `I want to thank Bill McClure. For several years, he has had to listen to me about presidents.' Do you talk all the time about presidents?
Mr. SHENKMAN: Well, he won't let me, but I--I talk quite a bit about presidents.
Mr. SHENKMAN: Well, you can't live with these guys--I mean, these guys are becoming my friends over the last couple of years, you know, and I would refer to them in my conversations with friends as, `These are my friends. These are my pals, you know, my presidents. Well, my presidents would never do this, and maybe they'd do this.'
LAMB: Do you have a favorite president?
Mr. SHENKMAN: Yeah, George Washington. He's my favorite president. Ever since I was in high school, I've had a gigantic portrait of George Washington hanging over my bed, and the reason I've always loved George Washington so much is because he had sterling character. He wasn't the brainiest of our presidents, but that didn't matter. And that used to always give me encouragement. It was like, `OK, maybe, Shenkman, you weren't born a genius, but if you've got--if you hoe to the line and you do just what you're supposed to do, figure out what you're supposed to do, what's right and then you do that, well, then you'll be OK.'
And it's also safe having George Washington as a model. First of all, he's dead, so he's not gonna surprise you. It's always bad to make a hero out of somebody who's alive because they can always take a wrong turn, and then you're crushed. And, two, George Washington, as I talk in the book, he's--he's our Adam in the Garden of Eden before anybody gets spoiled, before there's any sinning. He's the only president who never cut any deals, never compromised his principles, never played politics with the presidency. He was above it all. He let Jefferson and Hamilton in the Cabinet play politics and cut deals, but not himself. He was above it.
Every four years, we go to the polls and secretly, in the back of our minds, we are hoping to elect another George Washington. In 200 years, we've only had one, but we're always secretly hoping. We want that guy who's above it all, who's--who's gonna do what's right for the country.
LAMB: James Polk--you talk about him. You say, "He was a very good liar," end quotes.
Mr. SHENKMAN: Yeah.
LAMB: Is he better than--is he the best liar of all the presidents?
Mr. SHENKMAN: Well, his--he--he told one of the great whoppers in American history. He was called `Polk, the Mendacious.' He lied us into the Mexican War. He comes into office in the 1840s, and he's a devotee of Manifest Destiny. What happens? He says, `I want to get California, and I'm gonna get it any way I can.' So, first, he goes and he offers the Mexicans--California was then a part of Mexico--he goes and offers them 25 million bucks. Well, they won't even see his emissary. So what does he do then? He says, `Well, I guess I'm gonna have to start a little war.' So he contrives a war so that we can then grab California.
Here's what happens. It's a well-known story, but there's still a lot of Americans who don't understand a lot of the details. Polk sends Zachary Taylor with a small Army detachment down below the Nueces River, which was the--long recognized as the southern border of Texas, which was now part of the United States--had just become part of the United States the year before. And he sends them into what was recognized as Mexican territory, to Matamoros, which was on the Rio Grande. And they kind of sit there waiting for an attack.
Eventually, the Mexicans figure out that there's this invasion. They attack. Polk goes to the Congress, demands--he wants a declaration of war for this unprovoked attack, where American blood is shed on American soil. Abe Lincoln was then a Whig congressman, member of the Opposition Party. He takes the floor of the House of Representatives and he says, `This is an outrage. Mr. President, show me on what spot of American soil American blood was shed,' because he didn't believe it, in fact, was American soil. And he--he made the statement so many times and made such a fuss about it that back home in Illinois, he became known as Spotty Lincoln. `Polk, the Mendacious'--James Polk, one of the great liars in American history.
LAMB: Well, let me follow on my asking you, how many presidents lied us into a war?
Mr. SHENKMAN: Well, we've had a lot of presidents lie to us about wars. Wars tend to bring out the worst in people.
LAMB: Let me ask this: Has any president been honest about a war?
Mr. SHENKMAN: Oh, sure. Sure.
LAMB: Before we got into it?
Mr. SHENKMAN: Yeah. George Washington, my hero here. Se--1790s, Washington sends a--basically the bulk of the American Army out to near your home territory of Indiana and there's an Indian battle. And our--our guy was named St. Clair and he loses. And he loses like two-thirds of the American Army. And George Washington goes to the country and he admits it. The House of Representatives is in an uproar. They demand documents. The Cabinet isn't sure that they want to turn them over. Washington makes a decision, `We're gonna turn over the documents. I'm gonna make a clean breast of it. I am not gonna lie about this.'
All the other presidents tend to fudge an awful lot. They play politics with it. Even Abraham Lincoln--and Lincoln is my second favorite president. I've got a very conventional list of favorite presidents; no surprises there. Lincoln is determined to win the Civil War, but he's even more determined, in a way, to win re-election in 19--in 1864. He knows that U.S. Grant is the best general in the Army. He knows that after the great victory at Vicksburg in Mississippi. But he declines to bring Grant east to take over as commander in chief of the Army of the Potomac because he's afraid that Grant, from that position, will then run for president against Lincoln.
So first he sends emissaries down to talk to Grant, sound him out and find out, and then, after he gets word back--and now several months have elapsed--then he finally appoints Grant. He's playing politics with national security in the middle of the Civil War where thousands--tens of thousands of peoples' boys' lives are lost. That's what presidents do. They--they--even an Abe Lincoln.
LAMB: Woodrow Wilson in World War I.
Mr. SHENKMAN: Sure. He's a classic case. He runs for re-election and he runs on the slogan of He Kept Us Out Of War. Now he knew that was nonsense and he privately admitted he was extremely uncomfortable running under that slogan, because he knew that any German submarine captain who fired on an American ship could immediately plunge us into war because Wilson had made that the test. And he knew that that test was gonna come at some point. As soon as it became in the German's interest to attack us because we were help--helping supply the--the British with too many foodstuffs and--and other things--and--and loans of--to--to buy ammunition and munitions, then we'd be in the war. And sure enough, very shortly after, we were in the war.
LAMB: FDR in World War II.
Mr. SHENKMAN: One of the most famous cases. In the spring of 1941--remember Pearl Harbor's in December, 1941. In the spring--we're talking seven, eight months early--Churchill comes to Roosevelt and says, `Look, we're gonna lose the war if you guys don't come in and help us.' FDR says, `The forces of isolationism are too great. I can't overcome them. I can't get us into the war. But I'll tell you what I'll do. I am not going to ask the Congress to declare war, but I am going to wage war on your behalf in the limited way that I can as commander in chief.' And he agrees to allow US warships to begin escorting British ships whenever they're in the Atlantic, because the British ships were being sunk left and right by the German submarines.
And FDR knows that this is gonna create a problem. And sure enough, a few months later, the USS Greer gets shot at by a German submarine. FDR goes on the air in one of his famous fireside chats--this is the fall of 1941, a few months before Pearl Harbor--and he says, `You know, the United States has been fired on in an unprovoked attack by the German navy, by a German submarine. This is an outrage.' What he's really trying to do is accustom domestic American public opinion to the idea that the Germans are the bad guys and they're even willing now to attack innocent Americans.
It was not an unprovoked attack. That was an outright lie. The Greer had been hounding the German sub for nine hours, radioing its position to British planes flying overhead, and the British planes were coming overhead and dropping bombs on the submarine. So we were right in the middle of a little undeclared war. FDR was doing exactly what he had promised Churchill.
LAMB: What was the Truman war scare.
Mr. SHENKMAN: This is not very well known, and I'm surprised even in the recent biographies of Truman they don't talk about this. But there's a historian who has dug up this information, and I give all the citations to him; I want to give him all the credit. And he explains that in 1948 Truman contrives to create a war scare. He basically says, `The--the Commies are coming and my German--my military commander in the western zone of Germany is telling me that we need to prepare.' And he's using this as an excuse to go before the Congress and get a draft reinstituted, beef up the military budget, and also get funds for the Marshall Plan. He's got many things on his agenda, and, not least, 1948, he's running for re-election.
And, you know, inflation is starting to get out of control. People are dissatisfied with all the sacrifices that they had made during the Great Depression and World War II. They're getting tired of Truman and the Democrats. They're kind of looking forward to maybe electing Dewey as president and--and moving into this new age. And Truman creates this war scare and he scares the hell out of the country and he gets everything he wants. He gets the Marshall Plan, he gets the military budget beefed up.
And, in fact, what this historian who has written all about this has discovered is that the German--the US military commander in Germany who had given Truman a letter basically saying that, `I'm afraid that we're gonna be invaded,' he subsequently has admitted that he--he--he wrote up that letter simply at the request of the Pentagon while his true feeling was, and they knew it, that there was no war scare.
And at the same time that he's writing this letter to Truman explaining that there is a terrible risk of war, he's writing a letter to somebody else where he says, `Boy these--my--my troops have never had it easier. They rest in peace. They rest easy. There's no risk of war; no threat of war. What a cushy job I've got.'
LAMB: When you--I--I--presidents you talk about haven't--does George Washington still hang over your bed?
Mr. SHENKMAN: Mm-hmm.
LAMB: Do you--do you go to places presidential? I mean, are you...
Mr. SHENKMAN: Yeah, I had a--I had a series on the air, The Learning Channel, two years ago called "Myth America." And the bulk of what we did in that series was to go around to presidential sites and show how they mythologize the presidents. You know, most of the time what people do is they remember all the good things about the presidents. And even biographers, when they come across something that's negative, well, they give it a paragraph or a sentence or they ignore it completely. And what I'm trying to do is show what the presidents do when they're under pressure, because that's when you can really find out what a person is like. And then, instead of being critical of the presidents, what I try to do is say, `Suppose you, the reader, were in the president's shoes. Wouldn't you be tempted to do exactly the very same thing?'--so that we don't have this kind of self-righteousness about them. `Oh, why did they do this, this, and this?'
LAMB: What's your favorite presidential historic site?
Mr. SHENKMAN: Well, I'll tell you my least favorite one right off the bat is the Kennedy Museum in Boston. It's an outrage. John Kennedy, whatever you think of him, was not a saint, but they pretend that he's a saint up there. And the way they get away with it is they tell you, `We are going to give you the presidency of John Kennedy as--in his own words.' That means you get John Kennedy's spin on everything.
So, for instance, they hang there the plaque that he received from the Pulitzer committee for "Profiles in Courage," even though all of his recent biographers have admitted that he didn't really write it, that it was written in collaboration with Ted Sorenson, his chief speech writer, and Jules David, an academic scholar. They don't mention that; they just show you the plaque with none of the scandal that's behind it. They don't talk about his womanizing. They don't talk about how he lied to the American people about the Cuban--about the Bay of Pigs crisis. They--they just skirt all of that. So I'd say that's--that's really the worst.
LAMB: Who else does a bad job, in your opinion, with that kind of thing?
Mr. SHENKMAN: Well, let's see. George Washington at Mt. Vernon, they do a pretty good job. You started out asking me for a good one and I--I hesitated because the--the one that popped in my mind was the Kennedy one. They do a pretty good job at Mt. Vernon. I would only have one small quibble with them. They keep describing him as a simple farmer. You go on the tour and--at Mt. Vernon and they say, `George Washington, a simple farmer.' Well, George Washington, a simple farmer, happened to be about the richest man in America. So not quite a simple farmer.
LAMB: One small question. How c--why is it that whenever they list the presidential libraries, no one ever mentions the Rutherford B. Hayes Library in Fremont? I mean, they always--they list the 10 or so...
Mr. SHENKMAN: Yeah.
LAMB: ...and then they're--the...
Mr. SHENKMAN: Well, we--we only started really getting presidential libraries with FDR. That's--FDR started the trend where--and it's really because the presidency starts becoming this huge thing in America.
LAMB: But why do they ignore the Hayes Library?
Mr. SHENKMAN: Well, they kind of ignore all of the--I mean, the Harding--have you ever gone to Marion? Maybe you have gone there. Have you gone to Marion? You know, the--the--these other presidents, they're--most Americans can't remember these presidents, and so they kind of ignore them. There are--there are little libraries and little monuments for--for all of these guys. But they're kind of forgettable characters.
LAMB: What's your favorite little site like that? Do you have one out there, an obscure--at least in our minds?
Mr. SHENKMAN: The Hoover one is kind of nice in--in Iowa. It's a nice little one. It--it gives you a real sense of--of where he came from, this orphan who grew up as kind of a farm boy. And that's not a bad one.
LAMB: What kind of a president was he?
Mr. SHENKMAN: Hoover? Well, this touches on what I like to talk about a lot, which is what makes for a great president and then what makes, obviously, for a bad president. Hoover should have been one of the great presidents. He had a fantastic resume. He was like George Bush. He'd done everything, knew government inside out. If anybody should've been a great president, it should've been--it should've been Herbert Hoover.
Herbert Hoover, during--as a young man, he was a millionaire by age 30--self-made millionaire because he'd been a mining engineer and he was a whiz at--at business. He, during World War I, helped save the Belgian people from starvation. Wilson had sent him over there to help the starving masses and--and he was just a fantastic czar for food development and he managed to save all these people's lives. He comes back here during the 1920s; he serves as secretary of commerce. I mean, this was a guy who should've been a great president.
He comes in, the Great Depression hits, and he's flummoxed. He doesn't know what to do. Now what's the problem? Change is constant in America. It's the only thing that doesn't change in America is change. And presidents have to have two attributes at the minimum. They have to be able to recognize change and then adapt to it. And Hoover recognized it. He understood the Great Depression was a big force. But he couldn't adapt to it. His mind, his personality, everything about him was the past. It was the 19th century and he could not reinvent himself fast enough to accommodate this great change.
LAMB: Where did you get the idea to cover presidential ambition, like the title of your book? I mean, what--what sparked you to do that?
Mr. SHENKMAN: Well, just, like anybody who's lived through the last 25, 30 years, I've been demoralized by what's happened with the American presidency. We've had one president after another--if their presidencies weren't cut short, they were sunk in scandal. Just think of all the scandals that have gone on. Scandal, scandal, scandal. And I wanted to figure out are--A, are our presidents, our contemporary presidents, worse than presidents in the past? And B, what's gone on? Why are--why are we constantly facing these problems?
So I wanted to go backwards. And I--in fact, the way I did the research on the book was to go backwards. I started with Eisenhower and I worked my way backwards to see when the trouble began, because for me there's kind of a dividing line in American history. It's all the presidents since Eisenhower, Kennedy on forward, who have been just tainted with one scandal after another. And then you go Eisenhower backward and, well, they--they seem more heroic in some way. They really seem like statesmen whereas our presidents don't.
Well, I drew two main conclusions. One is that the media amplifies all of the warts in our presidents. And that's one reason why we think that presidents today are so much worse than presidents in .... You know that old saying about `No man is a hero to his valet'? Well, in a sense, the media has turned 260 million Americans into the president's valets. We know everything there is to know about these guys while they're in the--in the White House. And it's hard to--to look up at them as--as statesmen.
The other thing that I was looking at was going backward, trying to figure out were these other guys really statesmen? And I think you can get the idea from my comments all throughout this hour that most of these presidents were not statesmen, or if they were statesmen, they weren't statesmen all the time. Many, many of them, when they were trying to either gain power or wield power, get things done, keep power, they stooped. And the only reason we don't know about it is because the historians either sugarcoat the truth or it's buried in these long biographies that most Americans don't have the time to read.
LAMB: All right, here's a small item.
Mr. SHENKMAN: All right.
LAMB: William McKinley, every afternoon at three o'clock did what?
Mr. SHENKMAN: Well, he--he had this poor woman as a wife who was an epileptic. And he used to, when he was governor of Ohio, would go through the governor's door and his wife would be over in a hotel room across the street where they had taken a room. And he would go look at her and tip his hat and pause. And then he--he also took up the custom when he was--was in the White House. He--he--Marc Hanna said that Mil--William McKinley makes all of us husbands look like poor, pathetic imitations because he's really the genuine article.
LAMB: But he'd literally go over to the window and wave to her every afternoon.
Mr. SHENKMAN: And wave to her every afternoon.
LAMB: And put a handkerchief over her face when she had an epileptic fit.
Mr. SHENKMAN: Yeah, because he didn't want everybody staring at her and so somehow this would--you know, these were Victorian times and...
LAMB: In the Franklin Pierce chapter, you must have written six times in italics, `Franklin Pierce is a drunk.'
Mr. SHENKMAN: Yeah. Did I do it that many times? I--I didn't mean to, but...
LAMB: Let's say it's three. I don't know.
Mr. SHENKMAN: I'm exercising too much...
LAMB: Whatever. I can't remember.
Mr. SHENKMAN: OK. I--but--but it's--but it stands out. It's stark, yeah.
LAMB: Franklin Pierce is a drunk.
Mr. SHENKMAN: ...is a drunk.
LAMB: What was that about?
Mr. SHENKMAN: He--he drank too much. It's one of the reasons why he was forced by his wife to make a promise that he would get out of politics. And, in fact, he kept his promise to her for 10 long years. He--he resigned from the Senate and went back home to New Hampshire. He's New Hampshire's only president. And he stays out of politics. And, in fact, he does kind of slow down his drinking, but he can't resist. And he--he's famous, in my book, for secretly conniving to win the Democratic Party's nomination for president in 1852 and doesn't even let his wife know about it. When he suddenly wins the nomination, he's delighted and she's in shock 'cause she's saying, `But how did this happen?' He says, `I don't know. Somehow it just kind of came to me.'
She finally discovers the truth, that he for a full year had been orchestrating this secretly behind her back; finds out on the eve of his inauguration. She refuses to attend the inauguration and, in fact, refuses to live in the White House the first month.
LAMB: I've read several versions of what happened to the son, Benny.
Mr. SHENKMAN: Yeah.
LAMB: What's your version of what happened to him, and what impact did it have on Franklin Pierce and his wife, Jane?
Mr. SHENKMAN: Well, it's a terrible story. He's one of the presidents who was broken as a man before he became president. You know, we always talk about the presidency breaking men. Well, just a couple of months before he actually took office--after he was elected president but before the inauguration, there was about a four- or five-month period there between November and--and March. They used to get inaugurated in March. He and his wife and their one surviving son--they'd lost a couple of other children to illnesses--are riding in a train. They're outside Boston. Train slips off the tracks, and right before their eyes, Benny flies through the air and is killed instantly.
Now Jane, his wife, is apoplectic about this. She had really just lived for Benny. Franklin had all these other political interests, but she was a devoted, devoted and religious mother. She's crushed by it, but she reaches the conclusion that, `Well, God must have intervened in our life so that--in this way so that Franklin can devote himself totally to the presidency.' She comes up with this rationalization. But then when she finds out a couple of days before the inauguration that Pierce didn't just have the presidency come to him, but he had connived and manipulated and worked hard to get it and had lied to her about the fact that he wasn't doing any of these things, she decided that the loss of Benny was punishment--was God's way of punishing Pierce, and she never recovers from this.
LAMB: Sits in her room.
Mr. SHENKMAN: Sits in her room on the second floor of the White House twirling in her fingers s--hair from--from Benny and then writing long love letters to him and then holding seances in the White House to try to be in communion with Benny's spirit. Well, Franklin Pierce is just--he's broken by this. He--he knows that he lied to his wife. He let down her. He's lost his child. He's in over his head as president. He doesn't understand the forces that are challenging the country, forces over slavery and sectionalism and abolitionism and all that. He's a crushed man.
LAMB: How did Calvin Coolidge deal with the loss of his son, and how did his son die?
Mr. SHENKMAN: Yeah. Great linking because that's just what I was thinking when you brought up Franklin Pierce, is Coolidge. Coolidge inherits the presidency from Warren Harding, and he's not a bad president for the first nine months or so. And then, just around the time that he's nominated by the Republicans to succeed Harding and win election in his own right, his son is out playing tennis on the White House tennis courts. He gets a blister on his foot. If you can believe this, he's wearing dark socks. The ink from the socks gets into his bloodstream, poisons him, he's dead within days.
Calvin Coolidge is a crushed man. And, in fact, historians say you can see a real difference in his behavior from this point on. He's no longer the man he was. He loses energy and enthusiasm for the job.
LAMB: Did Mary Todd Lincoln have her mental problems before or after she lost three sons?
Mr. SHENKMAN: I think she had the mental prob--she was always high strung, but it was the loss of those children that really seemed to have sent her over the edge. That and just the great strain of being the president's wife and this--this leading figure's wife. She was too high strung for that kind of position.
LAMB: Who was the most ambitious person to ever run for the presidency, in your opinion?
Mr. SHENKMAN: Yeah. You know, I'm asked that question all the time, and I--I can't give you the answer.
LAMB: Who are some of the more amb...
Mr. SHENKMAN: All of these guys.
LAMB: Who was the least ambitious?
Mr. SHENKMAN: Well, here, I'll--I'll answer your question by saying Abraham Lincoln is the one who was probably the most ambitious, considering that we think that he was not ambitious at all. All the stereotypes about Abraham Lincoln--country lawyer, Honest Abe, stovepipe hat, all of this kind of stuff--you never hear the word `ambition' come into the picture, but he was. His law partner, William Herndon, said, `His ambition was an engine that knew no rest.'
Abraham Lincoln--just take this little mental picture. He's 23 years old. He moves into New Salem, Illinois. He knows nobody, has no money, no power, no connections. He's a poor farm boy. He's a poor farmhand who's earning a living by going out and plowing other people's fields. He doesn't even have his own farm. He doesn't even have enough money to rent a real home. He rents out the back room--or, the back bedroom of different people, and he lives two weeks here, a couple of months there.
Six months after moving into New Salem, one year total education in his entire life, he announces in the local paper he's running for a seat in the state Legislature. That's ambition. He loses, but he runs again two years later and he wins. And he keeps running his whole life, and he can never run fast enough. No matter how quickly he climbs the pole, he always thinks it's not quick enough. He always wants to get ahead. And it's why he's one of the youngest presidents we ever had, in his early 50s--52 or something.
LAMB: James Buchanan used to like to read his niece's mail?
Mr. SHENKMAN: Oh, yeah. He w--he's famous as a busybody of American history.
LAMB: But his niece was the first lady.
Mr. SHENKMAN: Yeah, exactly. His niece served as first lady of the land, and...
LAMB: And he read it in the White House?
Mr. SHENKMAN: Yeah, he'd go through her mail. In fact, she wound up having to resort to hiding her mail in this bucket of butter--underneath this pail of butter that would be sent out through the kitchen, and that's how she would get her mail in and out of the White House secretly so that her uncle wouldn't be--wouldn't be reading her mail.
LAMB: FDR sent 50 FBI agents out to do research on Huey Long?
Mr. SHENKMAN: Yeah.
LAMB: Is that new? Is that--where'd you find that one?
Mr. SHENKMAN: Oh, that's...
LAMB: Is that well known?
Mr. SHENKMAN: It's--it's well known among scholars, but, again, this is one of those--you know, FDR is--is presiding over such important periods of American history, the Great Depression and World War II, that most biographers don't have much time for this little story, but it's a window into the development of the presidency. What I'm always trying to do is focus on turning points in the office where you can see when they sink a little bit lower.
FDR decides that the great threat to his re-election in 1936 is Huey Long, and Huey Long is running this machine down in Louisiana. He's totally corrupt. The machine is corrupt. And FDR decides, `I'm going to get him. I'm going to manipulate, politicize the IRS. I'm going to send 50 agents down there, and we're just going to dig up dirt until we destroy his machine,' because he knew Huey Long was the great threat. Why? Because Huey Long used to boast, `I can outpromise even FDR.' And, in fact, he--he went around promising people like the moon, and they were ready to go for him. And then, of course, he gets killed, so that knocks him out of the picture.
LAMB: James Polk gave four-hour speeches?
Mr. SHENKMAN: Oh, yeah. Yeah. Polk is one of the most underrated presidents and among the most ambitious men we've ever had in the--in the White House.
LAMB: I've got to read this one p--little thing here. You said, `Until then, Polk lived a charmed life. Everything he wanted, he'd gotten. But then he entered into an awful dark streak where nothing seemed to be right. When he ran for re-election two years later, he lost. Then he ran for vice presidential nomination and lost. Then he ran for governor and lost.' You find a lot of that in--in all these presidents, they lost a lot?
Mr. SHENKMAN: Most of them lost at least one election or two, yeah. That's in there. And in Polk's case, just give you an idea of how ambitious he was, when he was running for governor the first time, he--he wasn't terribly well known in Tennessee. And he was a Democrat, and Tennessee was a state that probably was more Whig than Democrat, despite the fact that Democrat Andrew Jackson was from Tennessee. It was a tough state for--for a Democrat like Polk to win. And he decides he has to get on his horse and, for four months straight, ride from town to town to town all across the state.
And he would ride eight hours a day to reach the next town over, then get up on a platform. Once, during a driving rainstorm that lasted three hours, while he's giving a speech and the platform underneath him collapses, he continues giving a speech. And then he gets back on the horse, and he rides off to the next town six, eight hours. And this was a guy who always suffered from bad stomach ulcers. He h--was in bad health all his life, but he does this for four months. He takes off one day, and he winds up winning the governorship by like 2,000 votes.
LAMB: You have a footnote on page 209 that, in the lingo of the day, it won't quit. It's about bosses.
Mr. SHENKMAN: Oh.
LAMB: And it says, I mean, `Teddy Roosevelt was to owe his elevation to vice president to New York boss Tom Platt. William Howard Taft was to owe his renomination as president in 1912 to the bosses, who were adamant about denying the nomination to Roosevelt. Woodrow Wilson was to owe his ele--elevation to the governorship in New Jersey to boss James Smith. FDR was to owe his nomination as vice president in 1920 to boss Tammany Hall. Harry Truman was to owe his political career to Missouri boss Tom Pendergast. Hubert Humphrey was to owe hi--his nomination as president to Chicago boss Richard Daley.' We still have bosses?
Mr. SHENKMAN: No. We have a more open, democratic system as a result of the disastrous 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. You remember all the--the--the--the turmoil that came out of that convention led to the McGovern Commission. They rewrote the rules, and the bosses disappeared from American presidential history.
LAMB: But you say in the 1990s, America stopped believing. You say it was a decisive turning point. So no more bosses; 1990s we've changed a lot, you say.
Mr. SHENKMAN: Yeah, we've changed a lot. Americans love to be--believe. They are believers. When a president gets up and makes an announcement, in our heart of hearts, we want to believe. Ronald Reagan got up and he said, `I can cut taxes, I can balance the budget and I can increase defense spending.' And it turned out it wasn't true, but Americans still wanted to believe. And even after it turned out it wasn't true in 1984, they still wanted to believe. George Bush gets up and he says, `Read my lips, no new taxes.' Then one of--the first thing he does when he becomes president is he raises taxes.
Americans are starting to get really jilted now. They're--they--they--they feel like lovers who they've been--who have been lied to, but they still want to believe. By the 1990s, under Bill Clinton, they just--they've quit believing now. I don't think i--we're going to elect any president, at least for a long time, who can get up there, make a statement and not be second-guessed by 20,000 people. And it's because we've had a generation of lying, and it's finally caught up.
It started with LB--well, it's really John Kennedy with the--the Bay of Pigs, lying about it. It's Lyndon Johnson lying about Vietnam War, and Richard Nixon and Watergate, and Reagan and Iran-Contra and his campaign promises, Bush with taxes. Goes on and on.
LAMB: Only have a short time. How skewed is American political history we get from historians, from what you've seen?
Mr. SHENKMAN: I'm relying on the historians for--as the sources for my book. Except for Jackson, Lincoln and Washington, whose papers I've personally gone through, I'm relying on their books. They have the story, but it's often buried or it's sugarcoated. But the facts are there. If you read carefully, you can find them.
LAMB: We're out of time. And here is the book by Richard Shenkman. It is called "Presidential Ambition: How The Presidents Gained Power, Kept Power, and Got Things Done." Thank you very much.
Mr. SHENKMAN: All right. Thank you.
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