Many of us know them only as the stuffy portraits on the walls of our childhood classrooms. But America’s presidents are a fascinating, eclectic lot: Some brought genius to the office, some forged greatness in the crucible of Washington politics, and some were freakier than a carnival sideshow.
Match each of the following clues with one of our past presidents, and see how you rate with our heads of state.
1. While the national debate on slavery heated up, he acted quickly and decisively — installing the first bathtub in the White House.
2. An All-American center for the University of Michigan football team, and a seminal force in the career of Chevy Chase.
3. Once asked how he became a war hero, he said: “It was absolutely involuntary. They sank my boat.”
4. The first president to be photographed — and second to be portrayed by Anthony Hopkins.
5. “If you think too much about being re-elected,” this World War I president said, “it is very difficult to be worth re-electing.”
6. This New Hampshire Democrat pandered to slaveholder states. By the time he left office, in 1857, experts said that “he couldn’t get elected dogcatcher.”
7. If this former senator and New York governor knew the profession plied on the Phoenix street that bears his name, his prominent mutton chops would bristle.
8. Lost the popular vote, but won the presidency on the Electoral College in a “stolen election” that was the most bitterly disputed of its time.
9. Dana Carvey honed his impersonation of this man into abstract comedy art.
10. He often led off Cabinet meetings by reading jokes he liked. A favorite one involved the British, an outhouse and a portrait of George Washington.
11. This president’s pet parrot unleashed a spew of profanity at his funeral and had to be escorted from the room.
12. A former naval officer whose canoe was attacked by an enraged rabbit.
13. Made headlines in 1991 when he was exhumed to determine if he had been poisoned. (He hadn’t, but he still didn’t look so good.)
14. Forbade drinking and dancing at his own inaugural, which established him as a sourpuss — and probably not, as some assume, the inventor of the polka.
15. Nearly 300 pounds and known as “The Beast of Buffalo,” his illegitimate child became a campaign issue — and he won, anyway.
16. Wrote painstakingly detailed instructions to his contractors about renovations to his Virginia home — while he was off running the war.
17. The first president to be impeached, this former tailor battled with Congress over the tone of Reconstruction and held onto his job by just one vote.
18. “Little Orphan Annie” author Harold Gray killed off Daddy Warbucks to protest this man’s election.
19. Hero of the Battle of Tippecanoe (“Tippecanoe and Tyler, too”) Insisted on giving his inaugural address in the rain and died of pneumonia 39 days later.
20. When J. Edgar Hoover died, this president passed over Hoover’s second-in-command Mark Felt and hired L. Patrick Gray to run the FBI. Years later, this turned out to be a bad move.
21. These two presidents were close friends, then bitter enemies . . .
22. . . . then friends again before dying on the same day: July 4.
23. On his watch: The Dred Scott decision, John Brown’s Rebellion and, oh, the first shots of the Civil War. His farewell address included the sentiment, “I meant well.”
24. His greatest accomplishments took place before he took office, and his presidency was swamped in scandal, but he lobbied for black voting rights long before it was popular.
25. Coined the phrase “Do-Nothing Congress” but didn’t copyright it — so he lost out on a lot of money.
26. Forensic experts now believe Charles Guiteau’s bullet didn’t kill this president as much as his medical treatment did.
27. “Political life is like a hammock,” he told Edward R. Murrow. “It’s hard to get into, and harder to get out of gracefully.”
28. This president’s up-and-down administration probably hit its low point when British soldiers burned down the White House.
29. He later became chief justice of the United States and was glad to leave the White House, where he’d gotten wedged in the tub several times.
30. Conversing with this man, critics said, was like “talking to a hitching post.” So, after one term, voters doomed him to spend posterity in a 600-pound “Grover Sandwich.”
31. He won two terms against minimal competition because his party, the Democratic-Republicans, had not yet learned the joy of dividing and devouring one other.
32. Confounded his mentors, his base and his running mate’s assassin by backing civil service reform and requiring political appointments be based on merit instead of cronyism.
33. He survived an assailant’s bullet, but dies every time you watch “Knute Rockne: All American.”
34. He once referred to the vice presidency as “a bucket of warm spit,” then became a bucket of warm spit, and then president.
35. First veep to take the wheel after a president’s death. Legend has it he was playing marbles with his kids when aides told him he was president.
36. At 42, he was the youngest U.S. president. And he once referred to playwright George Bernard Shaw as a “blue-rumped ape.”
37. He brought telephones into the Oval Office and inspired hundreds of hobo villages that proudly bore his name.
38. In a hard-hitting interview, he told Barbara Walters he was “more of a dog person than a cat person.”
39. Historically regarded as “the worst president ever”; some speculation that his wife, Florence, poisoned him out of office.
40. Presided over the Spanish-American War and an ailing first lady before he was shot, shaking hands at the 1901 Pan American Exposition.
41. This stoic chief exec once opined: “Perhaps one of the most important accomplishments of my administration has been minding my own business.”
42. He said the last sentence of the oath of office should be punctuated: “So, help me, God!” Sources: Barbara Holland, “Hail to the Chiefs” (1989, Ballantine Books); James Taranto and the Federalist Society, “Presidential Leadership” (2004, Wall Street Journal Books); Bob Dole, “Great Presidential Wit (Wish I Was in the Book)” (2001, Scribners).
THE PRESIDENTS (in order)
• George Washington
• John Adams
• Thomas Jefferson
• James Madison
• James Monroe
• John Quincy Adams
• Andrew Jackson
• Martin Van Buren
• William Henry Harrison
• John Tyler
• James K. Polk
• Zachary Taylor
• Millard Fillmore
• Franklin Pierce
• James Buchanan
• Abraham Lincoln
• Andrew Johnson
• Ulysses S. Grant
• Rutherford B. Hayes
• James A. Garfield
• Chester A. Arthur
• Grover Cleveland
• Benjamin Harrison
• Grover Cleveland (again)
• William McKinley
• Theodore Roosevelt
• William Howard Taft
• Woodrow Wilson
• Warren G. Harding
• Calvin Coolidge
• Herbert Hoover
• Franklin Delano Roosevelt
• Harry Truman
• Dwight D. Eisenhower
• John F. Kennedy
• Lyndon Baines Johnson
• Richard M. Nixon
• Gerald R. Ford
• Jimmy Carter
• Ronald Reagan
• George H.W. Bush
• Bill Clinton
• George W. Bush
1. Millard Fillmore 2. Gerald R. Ford 3. John F. Kennedy 4. John Quincy Adams 5. Woodrow Wilson 6. Franklin Pierce 7. Martin Van Buren 8. Rutherford B. Hayes 9. George H.W. Bush 10. Abraham Lincoln 11. Andrew Jackson 12. Jimmy Carter 13. Zachary Taylor 14. James K. Polk 15. Grover Cleveland 16. George Washington 17. Andrew Johnson 18. Franklin D. Roosevelt 19. William Henry Harrison 20. Richard Nixon 21 and 22. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson 23. James Buchanan 24. Ulysses S. Grant 25. Harry Truman 26. James A. Garfield 27. Dwight D. Eisenhower 28. James Madison 29. William Howard Taft 30. Benjamin Harrison 31. James Monroe 32. Chester A. Arthur 33. Ronald Reagan 34. Lyndon Baines Johnson 35. John Tyler 36. Theodore Roosevelt 37. Herbert Hoover 38. George W. Bush 39. Warren G. Harding 40. William McKinley 41. Calvin Coolidge 42. Bill Clinton