My Interview with The Washington Post


The dirty details that weren't fit to print.

I'm excited to share that Plodding through the Presidents was mentioned in this week's Washington Post Magazine article "44 Presidents, 43 biographies, one surprising takeaway."

The story is about reporter Justin Moyer’s endeavor to read a biography of every president, and how there are others out there like him. Others like me. As I’m only 6 presidents deep in my journey, I count myself lucky to be included alongside the seriously dedicated readers in his story. It's like those guys climbed Everest multiple times and I'm still at base camp saying "Look at the snowman I built!"

My humble efforts here didn’t get much coverage in the article, so I’ll share the inside scoop on what was said during my interview that didn’t make the cut.

Moyer reached out to me in March of last year, on Twitter. This might be how the Washington Post has always done it, I’m not sure.
During our phone interview, Moyer assured me I was the only person he talked to who was making presidential dioramas. That's good, because if there were someone else I think we'd have to duel.

We talked for maybe 15 minutes about what would possess me to read bios of every president, what I hoped to get out of it, and what I’d learned so far. I told him how I thought this would be an interesting way to learn about American history, how I hoped to better understand how we got where we are today, and how my biggest takeaway was that we’ve been a bitterly divided country from the start.

I soon realized that not only was Moyer reading biographies of the presidents himself, but he was also a new parent like me. That’s where we connected, and where I ultimately fit into his article:
As a new parent, I’ve kept up with my presidential reading project because I think — perhaps wrongly — that looking at the lives of America’s No. 1 citizens will teach me something about being a good dad.

I found I’m not alone. “Reading about the presidents helped me raise a newborn,” said Howard Dorre, a 34-year-old project manager living in Los Angeles. His blog, Plodding Through the Presidents, includes detailed photographic studies of presidential action figures. “I think that founding a country is similar to having a family,” Dorre said. “It’s very much like founding your own little nation.”
That was the extent of my appearance in the two-thousand word piece. You might expect further insight about how reading about the presidents helped me raise a newborn. So did he, when he asked me to explain.

Did I respond by talking about the monumental responsibility of fatherhood and how it takes an incredible First Lady and Cabinet just to help you feel like you know what you're doing? Did I give him an insightful quote about how I hoped that understanding the do’s and don’t of being a great leader might help me bring out the best in my child?

Nope.

I talked about poop.

As a new dad, poop was a big part of my life. The same could be said for the first few presidents, I argued. Washington, Adams, and Jefferson all loved manure – it was a hot new fertilizer and they wanted to get the most out of it. I told the Washington Post reporter that the presidents helped me learn to love poop, because of its value in the circle of life and because it was one of the only things my newborn had to give.

Somehow that didn't make it into his piece.

We also touched on how John Adams was my favorite president so far, how we tend to look back at progressive presidents more fondly, and how Alexander Hamilton was the perfect supervillain. Since then, I think my new favorite is John’s son, John Quincy Adams (JQA). I still think Hamilton’s a great arch-nemesis, but I’ve come around to agreeing with most of his policies and loving his musical’s soundtrack.

Detail of John Quincy Adams (my new favorite) by George Caleb Bingham
So much time had passed without the article being published that I was sure it would never see the light of day — some editor must have decided there would never be a slow enough news day for people to care about this kind of thing. I was thrilled when Moyer reached out to say it was finally being scheduled for Presidents’ Day, which made perfect sense.

I still think about how raising a child is like starting a nation, or at least forming its government. Reading about the first six presidents’ administrations made me realize how lucky I am to have such a loving, supportive partner. I know my wife Jess and I will have more talks about the rules and framework of this government as our daughter gets older. She’s only 15 months, so the best she can hope for at this point is a benevolent co-dictatorship between my wife and me (one where we each seem to think we have veto power.) We can discuss a more representative government when she’s potty-trained.

Reading about others who are much further along or have finished this biographical journey was encouraging – and daunting. I just finished John Quincy Adams and I’m about to start Andrew Jackson. I hear it’s downhill after that until Lincoln. Unfortunately that means wading through Van Buren, Harrison, Tyler, Polk, Taylor, Fillmore, Pierce, and Buchanan. Not exactly the all-star team.

When the going gets tough, I'll turn to this quote from JQA: 

“…once severed from my books I find little or nothing in life to fill the vacancy of time. I must, therefore, continue to plod, and to lose my labor; contenting myself with the consolation that even this drudgery of science contributes to virtue, though it lead not to wealth or honor.”
I too shall continue to plod, even when the lesser-known status of these presidents poses its greatest  challenge to me – an absolute dearth of action figures. I think my George Washington G.I. Joe spoiled me, and I became addicted to posing presidents to illustrate my points. So far I’m covered through Monroe, but good ol' JQA is a problem.

There is simply no action figure for John Quincy Adams. Because he wouldn't let that kind of thing stop him from plodding, I won't either.

I’ll just have to get a little creative.

When life hands you Lex Luthors, make John Quincy Adams.


Are you reading a bio of every president, or interested in giving it a try? Share your thoughts in the comments below or on my Facebook page or @plodwithme on Twitter so we can build a slow-moving literary army.

5 comments:

  1. Wow. We are quite kindred spirits.

    I decided a few years ago that I was going to read all the biographies of the presidents. I have a 15 month old. I have wished for president action figures (I settled for presidential Pez dispensers). I love John Adams and have enjoyed thinking of Hamilton as a villain. I think we were separated at birth ;)

    I've only gotten through 4 so far, as there are other books and life that take over sometimes. But this is amazing. I am so glad I stumbled upon this (by way of your Twitter post about Ted Cruz and babies in the sun :))

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    1. That's awesome!! I'm so glad you stumbled upon the site too. I've never had a long-lost sister so this is very exciting. I have to warn you that I'm rubbish at keeping up with my actual siblings, so I'm counting on you to help me maintain this relationship. And maybe host Thanksgiving.

      And I'm in no place to judge anyone's presidential biography reading pace. I totally understand that life with little ones can make it hard to find the time or mental state to dig into a biography. I went through several months where instead of reading before bed, all I could manage was an episode of The Twilight Zone and/or Shark Tank.

      If you love John Adams, you should really love John Quincy Adams (although you get a very different perspective of Abigail from the son's point of view.) I really enjoyed Paul Nagel's John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, A Private Life.

      It was strange to discover that Ted Cruz is what happens when the sun hits a baby in the face: on.fb.me/1TOwf1F

      I'd love to hear your thoughts as we plod on - your comment made my day!

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    2. Your daughter is much cuter than Ted Cruz though.

      Ok checking out your Facebook and Twitter is leading me down a rabbit hole. I am both giddy with excitement to see entertaining and like-minded people posting about a subject I love...and also pretty sure I'm going to have to quit my job to make time to read all of these things.

      Thanks for the suggestion on JQA. It's hard to know which book to read sometimes. I am ready to get to him just because he was the first one that my son would point out when I was teaching him to name all the presidents. Nothing cuter than a toddler saying "Qincy." So far my 15 month old daughter is stuck on Jeff-son.

      I look forward to following along!

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  2. Reading Hamilton's bio, Adams comes off as someone to look down on in many respects. I might have to read his bio to see how he saw Hamilton and vice versa.

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    1. I would definitely recommend McCullough's John Adams, and I really should read Ron Chernow's Hamilton bio.

      I read a lot more about Hamilton while researching my Madison vs. Washington posts, and it made me appreciate his world view and accomplishments much more.

      Hamilton's heart-wrenching origins, self-made status and brilliant mind made him a great arch-nemesis - in many ways he was even his own worst enemy!

      I'm glad recent works like McCullough's bio and the HBO series based on it, and Chernow's bio and the musical based on it are turning the tide of the public perception of their subjects. The winners write the history books, and the six consecutive terms of Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe didn't favor these northern Federalists who were opposed to slavery.

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