Presidential Pursuits
Washington Post Book World, June 24, 1990

see also


HAIL TO THE CHIEFS: How to Tell Your Polks From Your Tylers
by Barbara Holland
Ballantine; 283 pp; $7.95; paperback.

"THE TROUBLE with American History," writes Barbara Holland, "is that you don't remember it, and why should you? Nobody does."

Then with disarming candor she turns the knife in the wound. "American History . . . consisted entirely of stout, middle-aged men in waistcoats and muttonchop whiskers who only thought about tariffs." It was "what we had to trudge through before we could get on to the good stuff: Mary Queen of Scots, Nero, Catherine the Great, Attila the Hun, Marie Antoinette, Vikings, pharoahs, and the Great Plague."

To rectify this condition after her fashion, she sets off on a brisk Washington-to-Reagan ramble through the lives of 40 presidents. Its aim: to tell you "everything you're likely to remember or want to know about American History."

The result is not, as one might expect, just a gossipy, smark-alecky trivia trip of the kind that knocks itself out laughing over George Washington's expense account. Gossip there is, of course. (The Peggy Eaton affair; the suzerainty of Woodrow Wilson's second wife; the do-goodings of Eleanor Roosevelt.) Trivia, too, in plenty. (Who started the White House Easter egg hunt? Threw out the first baseball? Brought O.K. into the language? Adopted "Hail to the Chief" as presidential music?)

There are no tariffs. After all, Holland sniffs, in a mock schoolmarmish mode, "You've already had one chance to remember the McKinley Tariff and Van Buren's Vice-President, and you muffed it. No point in reminding you now."

The Holland viewpoint tends to be urban, feminist, domestic, skeptical. Men have their little ways; women, like slaves, didn't have the vote; most of the First Ladies had to play Indian to all these Chiefs. Doctors do badly -- they are all men, and they kill off a number of presidents. Predictably, Holland doesn't think much of war or Manifest Destiny. Andrew Jackson, "like most frontiersmen," she claims, "didn't know what to do about problems he couldn't shoot." After President Polk's Mexican adventure, "The Mexicans got to keep their serapes and a couple of cacti. We got Texas. And New Mexico. And upper California, later subdivided into California, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, and most of Colorado and Wyoming."

Some Chiefs work better than others. Powerful presidents inevitably seem worse served than pipsqueaks or nonentities, since so much more of moment could be said about them than her pace and space permit. Washington, man or monument, rather eludes her, as it seems to me he has eluded nearly everyone except Marcus Cunliffe. Holland hones an acerb wit on the Adamses ("It was the kind of family where nobody ever said dumb things like 'Hot enough for you?' or 'Have a nice day.' ") But she is nice to Abigail and John Quincy. Alas and inevitably, there is more than enough Dolley in her Madison chapter and -- unforgivably -- hardly a retrospective word about James at the Constitutional Convention. At the other end of the list, she simply finesses Ronald Reagan, the last entry. There is no biography, only a deadpan analysis of "Bedtime for Bonzo."

The book steadily lampoons both the hypocrisy and easy moral superiority that underlie so many modern versions -- and judgments -- of the past.  "Your history teacher told you Washington freed his slaves in his will," she writes, "but she was lying." After noting the complex problems that George had in trying to do just that (one being Martha's ownership of more than half of the Mount Vernon slaves), Holland observes that freeing slaves "wasn't quite like chopping the shackles off three hundred adult white male CPAs in midtown Manhattan."

A certain need for perspective also touches many remarks about recent Chiefs who, though contemporaries of many adults, are ancient history to the Pepsi Generation. Trying to convey the style and character of one living ex-President, she writes: "Nixon was born in a lemon grove and grew up in southern California, but if you're trying to imagine him sprinting across the beach with a surfboard on his head, pursued by shrieking blondes in bikinis, I don't recommend it. Not without some preliminary warm-up exercise, like imagining Woodrow Wilson in a gorilla suit."

Yet this Hollandaise saucy way with history has produced a book that hardly anybody I can think of should be without. Dinner guests can dine out on its comic asides. Historians can grin or grind their teeth at deadly serious stuff outrageously slighted. (Martin Van Buren's Panic of 1837, she writes, was "caused by various factors too financial to discuss.") High school teachers, one hopes, will assign the book, and require a paper on a chosen president -- Millard Fillmore is a beauty; so is James K. Polk -- filling in anything significant that highhanded Holland has left out. Any general reader so inclined will be able to read about the presidency for once without being told in sonorous prose how dangerously imperial, imperiled or impaled an institution it is -- though perhaps salvageable if only we take the writer's prescriptions to heart.

So, as Andrew Jackson might have asked with regard to Peggy Eaton, "Why break a butterfly upon a wheel?" There is lots of useful information here.  South Carolina was always "stamping out of the room in a snit" over slavery, nullification and, dare one say it, tariffs. Polk was the guy who worked all the time and started the Mexican War. Franklin Pierce came from New Hampshire and installed the first central heating in the White House to cheer up his wife Jane, who nevertheless went right on staying in her room writing letters to their dead son Benjamin.

Along with the laughs, Hail to the Chiefs often encourages shrewd and touching empathy with moments from the past. Describing Grant at Appomattox, she notes his celebrated generosity in letting Lee's men keep their horses for spring plowing, in giving them rations, in shushing Union troops with the words: "The war is over, the rebels are our countrymen again." And then she adds: "It was one of those high points in a person's life. He should have stopped right there, but how was he to know?"

Hail to the chaff. And the wheat as well.