Presidential Diversions Review
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John Quincy Adams, one of the few intellectual presidents, swam nude in the Potomac almost every day. When Franklin Pierce was asked what a president should do after leaving the White House, he responded “There’s nothing left…but to get drunk.” These little-known facts are compliments of the research of Paul F. Boller, Jr., professor emeritus at Texas Christian University, as he chronologically provides sketches on how each of our presidents relaxed and played before and during their presidencies.

Unfortunately, these are a few of the most interesting facts. To be honest, when I first opened Presidential Diversions, I was seeking some juicy or little-known scandal. I realized upon reading the chapter on Thomas Jefferson that it would not happen. Instead, I discovered that he was a semi-vegetarian who was very well-read, and who devoted two hours to exercise (mostly walking). For our early presidents, in addition to interests (Adams was considered a great letter writer), Boller details their dinner parties and relationships with foreign diplomats. My first hope crushed, I then expected to obtain some meaningful insight on how the personal interests of our presidents affected some outcome of history. After reading about James K. Polk’s superb handshaking abilities, which he boasted about, my goal was then just to find something interesting. With few exceptions, that wasn’t happening, either.

As I embarked on the twentieth-century presidents, the book started to grab my attention. Theodore Roosevelt was a sickly child, who, after being bullied at the age of 14, vowed never to let that happen again. He subsequently took up boxing. As an adult, he was provoked at a hotel saloon, and, unable to resolve the confrontation peacefully, he slugged the man. As president, he became a social progressive, sponsoring legislation to assure that the U.S. be more equitable for all citizens. Maybe a connection?

Subsequently, I found the chapter on Warren Harding fascinating, since he didn’t enjoy being president, so he spent as much time as he could informally chatting with people, smoking, drinking (during prohibition), and playing poker. But as Boller states, historians have asserted that he, along with Grant, was the greatest failure as president, and that both administrations were full of corruption. So my most pleasurable discovery in the book was learning about an ineffective president. As you can see, Boller does include some politically-related information in the book, but not consistently.

As far as JFK is concerned, we’re all aware of the event where Marilyn Monroe seductively sang “Happy Birthday.” That’s nothing new, and that’s it for Marilyn. Reading the origin of Gerald Ford’s reputation of being a klutz was worthwhile, though. I also chuckled when I learned that Ronald Reagan was offended more by the public’s criticism of him as an actor than any disapproval of him as a president. Though I found those bits interesting, I had to wade through a lot of dull information to get to it. Maybe I shouldn’t have read the book chronologically.

If you’re interested in the life of certain president, I would imagine that you’d want to read a detailed biography, instead of just thumbnail sketches of mostly boring facts. Presidential Diversions is definitely for a very specific audience; I just can’t figure out who that audience is.

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