The Secret (Or Not so Secret) Lives of the Presidents

Hannah Carlson  ’15
Contributing Writer

Smith, boasting two first ladies among its alumnae, was an appropriate choice for lecturer Cormac O’Brien to visit on Feb. 18. O’Brien spoke about his latest book, Secret Lives of the U.S. Presidents. Arranged by the Smith Republican Club and the American Studies Department, the lecture by O’Brien contained many quirky and surprising anecdotes about America’s 49 presidents.

O’Brien is the author of three books on topics of American history, including the presidents, their first wives and the American Civil War. However, O’Brien approaches his books from a different angle than most history buffs; his focus is on uncovering what is glossed over in the public images that political figures construct for themselves when campaigning. The tagline for many of his books is, “What your teacher never told you.”

O’Brien quickly pointed out the dilemma that presidents face as public figures.

“I’ve arrived at the conclusion that our presidents are presented with a nearly impossible situation. They’re elected by the people and expected to be ‘one of us,’ but any personal flaws they may expose could jeopardize their ability to lead,” he said. “Consequently, they are having constantly to present an idealized, stage-crafted version of themselves that undermines their connection to the public.”

According to O’Brien, even as we remember our presidents, we select certain pieces of information to construct an ideal of who our presidents were. No history textbook mentions how Washington outfitted his horses in leopard skins. Nor was FDR ever photographed by the press in a wheelchair or being lifted out of cars by his Secret Service. Grover Cleveland was so adamant about hiding his diagnosis of mouth cancer from the public that he had his tumor removed on a boat traveling from New York to Cape Cod. And surprisingly, John F. Kennedy was one of the most sickly American presidents in history. He had horrible chronic back pain caused by Addison’s disease and received shots of cortisone daily.

Warren Harding imported his mistress along with alcohol into the White House during Prohibition. Andrew Jackson or “Old Hickory” lived out his presidency with a bullet lodged in his chest, too close to his heart to be removed. He also acquired a dent in his skull as a child from the blow of a British sword when he refused to shine the soldier’s shoes, and he killed a would-be assassin with his cane near the end of his presidency. As for Theodore Roosevelt, when asked about the Spanish American War, “Teddy” replied, “It was great fun, I strangled a Spaniard with my bare hands like a jack rabbit.”

The varied personalities of our presidents seem to reflect the constantly transitioning identity of the United States. The most recent publication of O’Brien’s book features a new chapter on President Barack Obama. O’Brien refers to Obama as “Actor-in-Chief” in addition to his many other duties. Obama’s presidency and behavior before the American people is ultimately defined by the technological advancements of this century. According to O’Brien, while Obama may secretly have a fear of intimacy and even smelly feet, those qualities do not run parallel to the public image of a national leader. As such, one “must be a man of the people to be elected, but then be anything but a president.”

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