A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the White House
August 12, 2004
Odd as it may seem, considering the nonstop barrage of television ads and candidates stumping across the nation in yet another election year, the country once looked down upon open campaigning. From the time of George Washington to Abraham Lincoln, touting oneself as the best man for the job was considered degrading. Lincoln even refused to vote for himself. It was Stephen O. Douglas, Lincoln’s Democratic opponent in 1860, who broke the mold and became the first presidential candidate to openly campaign for himself.
This is one of many little-known but fascinating anecdotes detailing the oddball customs and downright dirty tricks surrounding America’s presidential campaigns, as told in A Funny Thing Happened on the way to the White House. It’s a hilarious book that shines light on the vast history of irreverence for the most sacred elected office in the nation. President Andrew Jackson was portrayed as a murderer in “The Coffin Handbill,” a flyer emblazoned with coffins and text detailing Jackson’s bloody misdeeds. The Cincinnati Gazette even attacked Jackson’s mother: “General Jackson’s mother was a COMMON PROSTITUTE brought to this country by the British soldiers! She afterwards married a MULATTO MAN, with whom she had several children, of which General JACKSON IS ONE!” For his part, Andrew Jackson accused his 1828 opponent, John Quincy Adams of being a “practicing pimp” for allegedly introducing Czar Alexander to young women when Adams was ambassador to Russia.
When Teddy Roosevelt journeyed to Africa for one of his legendary big game hunting expeditions, Roosevelt opponents publicly prayed that “every lion will do his duty.” Woodrow Wilson was declared not fit for office because “he was a long-haired professor.” When New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey entered the 1940 presidential ring, newspapers reported that Dewey had “thrown his diaper in the ring.” A favorite Republican slogan in 1948 was “To err is Truman.” It was a year when inflation was skyrocketing and Republican candidate Robert A. Taft, son of the former president, proclaimed “Let ‘em eat beans” in response to solutions to a dismal economic outlook.
The book also traces the evolution of political cartoons. Lincoln is portrayed as a monkey, while Ulysses S. Grant is depicted passed out drunk with an assortment of empty liquor bottles scattered at his feet. A sketch of Richard Nixon, complete with a prominent five o’clock shadow, queries: “Would you buy a used car from this man?”
The authors save the best for last. At the end of the book is a photograph of every president. Beneath each is an insulting comment from one of their perceived critics. Of George Bush, Sr., humorist Art Buchwald declares: “He reminds every woman of her first husband.” A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the White House provides much-needed nonpartisan comic relief at a time when polarized America craves it most. —Ed Reynolds
Authors David E. Johnson and Johnny R. Johnson will be signing copies of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the White House at Alabama Booksmith on Monday, August 23, at 4 p.m.