You’re Going To Put Somebody’s Eye Out
An exhibit on the young presidents sanitizes the little rascals for your protection.

by David Holzel
 

How many times did Mrs. Hoover have to tell young Herbert, “How many times do I have to tell you?”

Did Mrs. Eisenhower call to little Dwight from the back porch in Abilene, “If you keep on shifting your right flank in a pincer movement and encircling the enemy with that stick, you’re going to poke somebody’s eye out”?

Which came first for Franklin Delano Roosevelt, cigarettes or that dandy cigarette holder?
 
Did young John Fitzgerald Kennedy, after missing 65 out of 88 days of kindergarten because of 

 



First schoolboys: If Nixon was as dour in his youth as he was as commander-in-chief, Franklin Roosevelt was as ebullient – and just as lacking in conscience.
 

 


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whooping cough, measles, chicken pox and scarlet fever, spend the rest of his life trying to grow out of the role of chronic patient by playing doctor every chance he could?

You won’t find the answers to these or other vexing questions on the early lives of the presidents at an exhibit at the National Archives in Washington, DC. “School House to White House” offers a limited, sanitized look at the formative years of the dozen presidents who established presidential libraries. That limits the coverage from Hoover to Clinton. Those curious about the rise and education of, say, Franklin Pierce will have to look elsewhere.
 

   
WHAT WERE THE PRESIDENTS' FAVORITE SNACKS?

But the exhibit does remind us of a time that has disappeared into the past. Just about everyone went to a public school. That’s because just about everybody was poor or of modest means.
 
An elderly Hoover, who, if he had never become president probably would be remembered as one of the great public servants of the 20th century, is shown in a TV interview, recalling that he was able to study engineering at Stanford University because the tuition was free,  adding drolly, “and that fee more or less fitted my necessities."
 
While Dwight Eisenhower remembers his after-school hours as rambunctious times filled with baseball with his brothers, Richard Nixon recalls how he had to help in the orchards or at the family gas station after school. And only then could he do his homework. It’s probably no coincidence that Nixon’s childhood violin is on display at the entrance to the exhibit – you can practically hear its plaintive notes wherever Nixon turns up in the exhibit hall.
 
In 1934, Nixon’s report card from Whittier College shows him with all A’s, except for one B in P.E. A year earlier, he had written an essay, “What Can I Believe.” It’s pure Nixon: earnest, grim, self-pity posing as modesty, essentially saying nothing:
 
...I found that far from being a logically minded college student, I was completely lost in attempting any close analysis of my ideas and methods. However, I shall place my ideas about certain philosophical problems before the reader and let him see what a jumbled mess can be made of a man’s brain and ideas by a modern college education.
 
Cue Nixon’s violin.
 
If Nixon was as dour in his youth as he was as commander-in-chief, Franklin Roosevelt was as ebullient – and just as lacking in conscience.
 
As befits the son of the patrician class, FDR was schooled at home by private tutors until he was 14. Then he attended the Groton School in Massachusetts. From there, in 1900 at age 18 he wrote home:
 
My Darling Mama and Papa,
Joyful news!
I have a part in the play at last and entirely by accident.

 
He explained that his classmate Jimmy Jackson had come down with “rheumatic fever and water on the knee.” Jimmy was so sick that he went home and would miss school for the rest of the year. So Roosevelt took Jimmy’s part in the school play.
 
I suppose it is criminal to rejoice but I can’t help it!!!!
 
Roosevelt, along with all the presidents who were educated until mid-century, studied Latin. Even Eisenhower who, the joke went, spoke English as if it was his second language. Even Gerald Ford, who got mostly C’s in the dead tongue. (He got his best grades in “Physical Training.”) With such an emphasis on Latin, it’s a wonder that American relations with the Vatican aren’t better than they are.
 
There were other subjects that schools have since dropped into the dustbin of history. Harry S Truman had a hygiene class. George H.W. Bush had a citizenship class.
 
Then there are the exhibit’s photos. Lyndon Johnson in bow ties. Bill Clinton leaning on his sax on his 12th birthday. And the elder Bush gathered with members of Yale’s secret Skull and Bones society around a table with a skull and crossbones embroidered on the bunting. You half expect these guys to be wearing eye patches and a parrot on their shoulders. But maybe if they did, they’d have to kill you. I have no clue how these secret societies work.
 
So was Ronald Reagan a scamp? Was Jimmy Carter a cutup? Did Lyndon Johnson leave bags of fertilizer on neighbors' porches, then ring the bell and run away? Was Harry Truman any cleaner for the hygiene classes he took?
 
These questions will have to wait for an earthier exhibit. Something approaching an answer would be joyful news indeed. 
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Copyright (c) 2007 by David Holzel