The White House has three basic structural components to it: The West Wing (which gained notoriety through a television show of the same name), the East Wing, and the Secret Underground Basement where our reptoid alien overlords dwell. The East Wing, as near as I can tell, was largely designed to store overflow furniture and plates from more interesting parts of the White House. It’s the part open to visitors.
When I was a kid Dad took us to Washington, and a friend in the OSBI graciously offered to give us a personal tour of the White House, including the non-residential sections of the West Wing. That was cool. I got to poke my head into the Oval Office, and we ran into Bill Clinton briefly as he returned home from a trip. A woman next to us broke down crying when he said “Hello.” At the time myself and everyone in our family was Republican, so we didn’t cry in front of strangers and avoided public displays of emotion in general. But we all agreed that seeing the leader of the free world and the stuff on his desk was pretty neato.
The East Wing, by contrast, has been intentionally designed to display nothing of interest whatsoever. I assume this is because they don’t want people loitering around the White House. Brochures are strategically designed to highlight pertinent silverware information, paintings of dead people and first ladies’ preferences regarding sitting rooms. By providing the public with such tedium the Secret Service minimizes the chances of someone hanging around for a couple of hours, going crazy, then breaking into a cabinet to steal Gerald Ford’s favorite fondue fork and launching into a homicidal rampage.
I understand their logic, but if I were in charge of White House Visitors Services, I would tell people the cool stuff about the president’s residence. For instance: did you know John Quincy Adams kept a pet alligator in the East Wing? That’s something I wish I’d known when I went on the tour. The CIA guys posted around to watch people like me don’t have a very good sense of humor, but they seem to know their stuff, so it’s conceivable one of them could have pointed to the “alligator room” if I asked them.
In fact, I’m not sure why they don’t scrap “The Red Room” to make way for a “Hall of Stuffed Presidential Pets.” If they threw in a well stocked bar and a humidor, it could easily become the new hangout spot for visiting foreign dignitaries. Frankly I’m surprised the idea never occurred to Teddy Roosevelt.
Roosevelt, incidentally, had a pet badger that someone in Kansas lobbed at his train while he passed through, and kept it as a loyal family pet despite the fact it continually bit him and his children.
Calvin Coolidge had a raccoon a voter from Mississippi graciously sent to the family as an intended contribution to their Thanksgiving dinner. They kept it as a pet instead, and Coolidge took it on walks, built a special house for it outside which he visited daily, and once had a limousine fetch “Rebecca” during a White House renovation because he thought the raccoon “might get lonely.” He also slept ten hours a day while in office, shortly before the onset of the Great Depression, and is a close second to Harding as probably the most milquetoast person we’ve ever elected.
Woodrow Wilson kept a herd of sheep on his lawn during World War I to scale back lawn mowing expenses. Fortunately a few years later someone came up with the idea of paying illegal immigrants to do that sort of thing, but at the time “sheep” was a sound budgetary measure. Wilson let one of his rams chew tobacco, because at that time scientists had not yet proven that chaw causes cancer in sheep. Its direct link to cancer in humans remains disputed by many credible scientists employed by cigarette companies.
Benjamin Harrison had a pet goat, which he enjoyed hitching to a cart to tow his grandkids around on the front lawn of the White House. At one point someone left the gate open and it escaped, prompting the Commander-in-Chief to sprint down Pennsylvania Avenue waving his top hat and cane, loudly yelling for “Old Whiskers” to come back. I don’t know this for a fact, but I have to assume the newly arrived British Ambassador’s first glance of the American head of state was watching the president chasing a goat down the street.
If anyone had possessed the foresight to create a Presidential Taxidermist, White House tours would be way, way more entertaining.
Here are some other interesting facts I have collected which are auspiciously lacking from brochures:
For a while Presidents and Vice Presidents kept three-inch tall models of the Washington Monument next to their beds. If the president knocked the model over, a distress signal was sent to the Secret Service. The program was abandoned shortly after vice president Dan Quayle, in the throws of passion, inadvertently tipped his monument over. Guys in suits burst into the room moments later and hurled the second lady to the floor, and shortly thereafter the Washington Monument secret alarm system was abandoned. (This would have taken place at the Naval Observatory, where the vice-president lives, so it’s not entirely germane to my post. But at the moment, Dan Quayle probably has as good a shot at grabbing the GOP 2012 nomination as anybody.)
Mary Lincoln held séances in the White House, which could account for why everyone keeps seeing the ghost of her husband. Following his election, then president-elect Obama made a joke about Nancy Reagan holding séances, although she did not (she was into astrology, which is different but equally hokey). Conversely, while First Lady, Hillary Clinton held séances in order to try and communicate with Eleanor Roosevelt, at least according to Bob Woodward.
Andrew Jackson hosted a giant open house to celebrate his inauguration, which became so raucous and unruly that White House aids drug bathtubs onto the lawn and filled them with orange juice and whiskey to try and lure the mob outside.
You might think: wouldn’t that be a serious security threat to the president? Not for Andrew Jackson. I’m not a huge Andrew Jackson fan, what with his various Cherokee ethnic cleansing policies, but I will nonetheless award him his due as The Most Badass President Ever. (Incidentally, Andrew Jackson was six feet tall and never weighed more than 145 pounds, which are my exact dimensions. If he were alive today, we could borrow each other’s pantaloons.)
In 1835 a crazed English house painter stepped out from behind a column as Jackson exited the Capitol, and shot a pistol at him. It misfired, prompting Jackson to walk ominously towards the guy, who fired a second pistol, which also missed the president. Jackson pulled out his walking cane and beat the would-be assassin within an inch of his life until aids eventually pulled the horked-off president away.
Normally getting shot at tends to spook people, but by 1835 Andrew Jackson had already been shot on two separate occasions. In 1806 he fought a pistol duel with Charles Dickinson, where his plan literally consisted of allowing himself to take the bullet, assume he was tough enough to carry on, then gun down his opponent as the man frantically reloaded. His strategy, though insane, completely worked.
Later, in 1813 he got into a gun fight with the Benton brothers in Nashville, wherein they managed to fire a slug and ball into him. Jackson soaked two entire mattresses with blood before finally slipping into unconsciousness, but thirty-four days later he was back on his feet, defeating the British in Florida a few weeks after the war against them had actually concluded. While there he picked up malaria, which nicely complimented the smallpox he contracted as a child.
According to one account, by the time of his death Jackson had three bullets and an arrowhead lodged in various places on his body. When he coughed, he could hear a musket ball rattle around in his lungs.
See, that musket ball is the sort of thing they should keep in a display cabinet in the East Wing. Not a bunch of damned tea cups. Also, I’d like to see that stuffed badger.
Andrew Heaton is a writer and standup comedian in New York City. If this post made you laugh or think, kindly "like" it on Facebook.