Inaugural Changes

Today, we inaugurated a new president. Joseph Robinette “Joe” Biden, Jr., is now the 46th president (the 45th person to hold the office, since Grover Cleveland counts twice). With the coming of a new President (and Vice President, and First Lady) it seems a good time to look at my books and see what needs to be updated.

Joe Biden

I’ll start with the first book, The Presidential Book of Lists, and start with an oddity in that.

Chapter 7: Most Common Presidential First Names

The list starts with James, John, William, and George. The US Census Bureau lists the ten most common male first names: James, John, Robert, Michael, William, David, Richard, Charles, Joseph, Thomas. Joseph, Joe, is the ninth most common male first name. But Joe Biden is the first President to be called Joe or Joseph, first or middle name.

Chapter 8: Most Popular States Where Presidents Were Born

Joe Biden is the second President born in Pennsylvania (after James Buchanan, 1857-61). Thus, Pennsylvania is now tied for fifth place (the birth state of two Presidents) with North Carolina, Vermont, and Texas.

Chapter 13: Presidents Who Shared Birthdays

Joe Biden was born on November 20, 1942. He doesn’t share his birthday with any other Presidents, but he was born in a very busy week. James Garfield was born November 19, 1831. Franklin Pierce was born November 23, 1804, and Zachary Taylor was born November 24, 1784.

Chapter 17: Presidents Who Were Older than the Greatest Number of Their Predecessors

Ronald Reagan had held the top spot on this list solo until today. Reagan was older than four of his predecessors: John Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter. Biden, too, is older than four of his predecessors: Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump (who himself was tied for second on the list, being older than three of his predecessors).

Chapter 19: Presidents Who Had the Most Living Predecessors

Biden joins the top of the list, with five: Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump. Already on top of that list are Abraham Lincoln, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Donald Trump.

Chapter 33: The Five Presidents Who Outlived Their Wives the Longest

Joe Biden is now number one on this list. His first wife, Neilia Hunter Biden, died in a car crash in December 1972, more than 48 years ago. He remarried five years later, to the current First Lady, Dr. Jill Biden. Now #2 on the list is Thomas Jefferson, who outlived Martha (and remained unmarried) by almost 44 years. Martin Van Buren is now in third place, having outlived Hannah by 43 and a half years. And at #4 is Theodore Roosevelt, who outlived Alice by almost 35 years. Like Biden, TR remarried a few years after the death of his first wife, and had more children with her.

Chapter 34: The Six Presidents Who Had More Than One Wife

When I wrote the book, five Presidents had been widowed and remarried, and one—Ronald Reagan—was divorced and remarried. Since then, we’ve had Donald Trump, the only President to have married three times (twice divorced), and now Joe Biden is the sixth President to have been widowed once and then remarried.

Chapter 46: Presidents Who Had All Their Siblings Live to See Them Take Office

Joe Biden is now number 10 on this list. He is the eldest of four siblings, including his sister Valerie and brothers Frank and Jim.

Chapter 57: Vice Presidents Who Were Elected President

Joe Biden joins the list of now ten Vice Presidents who were elected President. He is only the second to retire from the Vice Presidency and then return to the political scene to later be elected President, after Richard Nixon (Vice President 1953-61; President 1969-74).

Chapter 75: The Five Oldest Presidents

When I wrote the book, Ronald Reagan was the oldest when counting from their age at inauguration (he was 17 days shy of his 70th birthday). Reagan was followed by William Henry Harrison, James Buchanan, and George H.W. Bush. Counting from their age when they left office, the list was Reagan, then Dwight Eisenhower, Buchanan, and Bush. When Donald Trump took office, he was nearly eight months older than Reagan had been at inauguration. He served one term, and left office at the age of 74 years and 7 months. Joe Biden takes complete control of this list: he is older on inauguration day than Reagan was when he left office: 78 years and 61 days old.

Chapter 86: Presidents Defeated In Their Bids for Re-election

To the twelve who were on this list—from John Adams to George H.W. Bush—we now add Donald Trump.


Jill Biden

As Joe Biden was sworn in, his wife, Dr. Jill Biden, becomes First Lady: the most consuming unpaid job in the administration.

She, too, will cause me to update Ranking the First Ladies.

Chapter 5: The Most Common Names of First Ladies

Like her husband, First Lady Dr. Jill Biden is the first First Lady to have her first name. But while her husband’s name is the ninth most common in the general population, hers is #159.

Chapter 6: The Most Popular States for First Ladies to be Born

Jill Biden is the third First Lady to be born in New Jersey, elevating that state into a three-way tie for fourth place with Missouri and Illinois.

Chapter 10: First Ladies Who Shared Birthdays

Jill Biden was born on June 3, 1951. She doesn’t share her birthday with any other First Lady, but Martha Washington and Helen Taft were both born on June 2 (1731 and 1861).

Chapter 22: First Ladies Who Were College Graduates

Dr. Jill Biden is the 14th First Lady with a college degree. But she went farther… much farther. Pat Nixon and Laura Bush continued on to earn masters degrees. Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama earned JD degrees, and worked as lawyers. Jill Biden earned a bachelors degree, two masters, and, in 2007, a doctorate of education.

Chapter 24: The Five Oldest First Ladies

Based on their age when their husbands took office, the list was topped by Anna Harrison, who was 65 years 222 days old when William Henry Harrison became President. Based on their age when they moved out of the White House, Bess Truman was three weeks shy of her 68th birthday, followed by Barbara Bush and Nancy Reagan. Jill Biden is 69 years 231 days old today, and thus, #1.

Chapter 26: The First Ladies Who Were the Greatest Number of Years Older Than Their Predecessors

Jill Biden leaps to number 2 on this list. She is 18 years 327 days older than her predecessor, Melania Trump (President Trump’s third wife, she is 24 years younger than her husband). Caroline Harrison, in 1889, was 31 years 293 days older than France Cleveland, who married President Grover Cleveland during his first term, when she was 21.

Chapter 41: The Presidential Wives Who Missed Their Husbands’ Presidencies

Joe Biden’s first wife, Neilia Hunter Biden, who was born in 1942, died in a car crash in December 1972, six years after marrying Joe. She is the sixth woman to have died before her husband became President.

Chapter 47: The First Ladies Who Had All Their Siblings Live to See Them Become First Lady

Jill Biden is the oldest of five sisters. She is the ninth First Lady to have all her siblings alive when she became First Lady.


Kamala Harris

Which brings us to my third book, Ranking the Vice Presidents. And Kamala Harris.

Sure, she’s the first woman to be Vice President. Sure, she’s only the second Vice President to be in a long-term relationship with a man (see William R.D. King). Sure, she’s the second Vice President of non-European heritage (see Charles Curtis). Sure, she’s the first Vice President to use a different last name than her spouse (Douglas Craig Emhoff, who is seven days older than she is).

But those are all the obvious differences. Let’s see what her inauguration does to modify my book. (Surprisingly, the answer is “not too much.” In other words, other than physical characteristics, Kamala Harris looks pretty much like her predecessors: age, family, work experience, and so on.)

Doug Emhoff

Chapter 5. The Tallest and Shortest Vice Presidents

Kamala Harris is now the shortest Vice President. She’s 5’2″ tall. John Adams, Martin Van Buren, and Hubert Humphrey were all 5’6″.

Chapter 6. The Most Common Vice Presidential First Names

Yeah, this one’s a gimmee for anyone who has been paying attention. No previous Vice Presidents have been named Kamala. On the US Census Bureau list of most common first names, Kamala ranks #3,559, with about 1,518 people sharing that name. (For comparison, #1 on the list is Mary, which adorns 3,991,060 people.)

Chapter 7. The Most Popular States for Vice Presidents to be Born

Kamala Harris is the second Vice President born in California (joining Richard Nixon).

Chapter 11. The Vice Presidents Who Shared Birthdays

Kamala Harris was born October 20, 1964, so she doesn’t share a birthday with any of her predecessors. But she was born during a popular week. Richard M. Johnson (1837-41) was born October 17, 1780. Adlai Stevenson (1893-97) was born October 23, 1835. James Sherman (1909-12) was born October 24, 1855. And Theodore Roosevelt (1901) was born October 27, 1858.

However, October 20, 1964, was the day former President Herbert Hoover died, at the age of 90, 31 years after he retired from the Presidency.

Chapter 17. The Vice Presidents Who Had the Greatest Number of Living Predecessors

Kamala Harris joins Al Gore (1993-2001) at the top of the list, with six living former Vice Presidents: Walter Mondale (1977-81), Dan Quayle (1989-93), Al Gore (1993-2001), Dick Cheney (2001-09), Joe Biden (2009-17), and Mike Pence (2017-21).

Chapter 23. The Vice Presidents Who Had the Fewest Children

Kamala Harris is the fourth Vice President to have no natural children, joining William King, William Wheeler, and Thomas Marshall.

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Vice Presidential not-the-first

On Saturday (November 7), I made mention of a pundit’s misstatement about one of the “firsts” that Kamala Harris will bring to the vice presidency. One of my friends on Facebook recommended writing an op-ed for the New York Times.

I’ve all but given up submitting pieces to newspapers because, if they’re timely, I have to figure out which paper is likely to say yes on the first attempt, because I won’t get a chance to submit it elsewhere, or by the time I don’t submit it, it will be incredibly dated. And if they’re not time sensitive (personal failing here), I tend to lose interest in submitting them after two or three newspapers fail to respond (and no newspapers respond negatively; they all say “if you don’t hear from us in [some amount of time], that means we don’t want it”). So I’ve taken to publishing my essays on my own blog, and hoping to eventually see some remuneration from sympathetic readers (it hasn’t happened yet, but I’m eternally hopeful).

At any rate, I wrote this piece Sunday, November 8, and submitted it to the Times with this cover note:

My first appearance in the Times was a letter to the editor commenting on the coverage of the 1984 election. I knew it appeared only after reading the letter in the paper, realizing it agreed with my views, and then seeing that the byline was, indeed, my name. After that, I earned my degree in political science from Boston University, went on to a career as a writer and editor, and am the author of three books on presidential history and trivia.

On Tuesday, they published a similar article by a staffer, making me grumble good-naturedly: obviously, the piece I wrote was a good idea, it was something they were interested in publishing, it’s just that my timing was off (though admittedly, I wrote it the same day everyone was thinking the same thing). So I’m publishing it here for your delectation.


Not all the “first”s are Kamala Harris’s

Kamala Harris

Kamala Harris will be the first woman to be vice president, the first of Jamaican/African heritage, the first Asian-American, the first to use a different last name than her spouse, and several other firsts. But there’s one thing I’ve heard far too many times from pundits and commentators in the last few days, one first that is not hers: She will not be the first person of color to be vice president, or the first of other-than-European descent.

Charles Curtis was vice president from 1929 to 1933. Prior to that, he served more than three terms in the Senate (resigning in the middle of his fourth to become vice president), and before that, seven terms in the House of Representatives, representing Kansas. During his time in the Senate, he served as president pro tempore and as majority leader, and he co-authored an early attempt at the Equal Rights Amendment.

Charles Curtis

Prior to his political career, Curtis was a lawyer in Kansas, and prosecuting attorney of Shawnee County, Kansas, from 1885 to 1889. And after retiring from the vice presidency (he and President Herbert Hoover were landslided out of office in the election of 1932), Curtis resumed his law practice in Washington, DC.

Curtis is the last vice president to have been born in a territory: he was born in Topeka, Kansas Territory, on January 25, 1860. Kansas became the 34th state a year later.

Curtis was a member of the Kaw Nation. His mother, Ellen Papin, was Kaw, Osage, Potawatomi, and French. His father, Orren Curtis, was English, Scots, and Welsh. Through his mother, Curtis was a descendant of chief White Plume of the Kaw Nation and chief Pawhuska of the Osage. His mother died when he was 3, and his father fought in the Civil War. Curtis was raised by his grandparents: his maternal grandparents on the reservation, and his paternal grandparents in Topeka.

Curtis and his wife, Annie Elizabeth Baird, had three children. She died in 1924. Curtis is the last vice president to have been unmarried during his entire time in office. His sister, Dolly, acted as his official hostess for social events. When he took office as vice president, Curtis was 69 years old: the oldest person to become vice president (though that record was exceeded by 71-year-old Alben Barkley in 1949).

Vice presidents at the time did not enjoy the partnership with their presidents that has marked the last several administrations, and the formerly active senator bristled at the inactivity of the office. So, trying to make the best of it, he enjoyed the status of the vice presidency, and made a big deal out of his rise “from Kaw tepee to Capitol.” He decorated his office with Native American artifacts and posed for pictures wearing Indian headdresses.

2895_109185243074Charles Curtis died a heart attack on February 8, 1936, at the age of 76. He was buried next to his wife at the Topeka Cemetery in Kansas. He was featured on the cover of Time magazine on December 20, 1926, and June 18, 1928, while serving in the Senate, and on December 5, 1932, as Vice President.

By the way, Harris is also not going to be the first vice president to have had a long-term relationship with a man. But the story of Vice President King will have to wait for another time.

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2020 Vice Presidential Debate Review

For those who are asking: yes, I did watch the vice presidential debate last night.
I thought both candidates did what they needed to do: look competent, show that they agree with and follow the lead of their presidential candidate, and not do anything too egregiously stupid. They were both there to re-assure those who have already decided which way they’re voting that that decision was the correct one.
Both candidates, it seems, let pass several opportunities to attack the other. Again, I think that’s because they weren’t there to look terribly combative (well, more combative than they have been on the campaign trail). That wasn’t the goal of the debate.
I don’t think either candidate swayed any votes, but that doesn’t really matter, and wasn’t their goal. Glancing at several post-debate analyses, it seems one thing they all had in common was a difficult time finding enough undecided voters to put together a meaningful panel.
Actually, the most surprising part of the debate, to me, is the universal agreement that “my” candidate did great, totally won the debate, and wiped the floor with the other. I haven’t seen/heard anyone say anything positive about the other candidate, or anything negative about their own. So, like our reliance on social media for news for the past decade, we continue to live in echo chambers in which differing points of view, if they’re noticed at all, are immediately dismissed as “fringe”.