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?


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.

The Abusive Poetry of James Madison

Young James Madison exercised his right to bust rhymes.
The baby-faced James "Little Jemmy" Madison at 32.
While reading Richard Brookhiser’s biography of James Madison, I came across this little nugget:
…Madison did and said a number of improper things while he was at Princeton, writing abusive poems about students who belonged to the other of the college’s two debating societies.
Abusive poems? It’s hard enough to believe the stern-looking Father of the Constitution was ever young, let alone that he wrote abusive poetry. I had to find them.

This is how I'm used to seeing Madison – as so old and stern he needs to keep his head tied to his neck so it doesn't scowl its way off.

Thankfully Founders Online came through, with three of Madison’s poems from a “paper war” between Madison’s Whig Society and their rivals The Clios. These nasty poems were read aloud in the college’s Prayer Hall, like a rap battle at Hogwarts. Madison didn't do any of the reading himself though – shy Little Jemmy was the only member of his graduating class excused from performing a required oratory. He preferred to spit his gold on the page.

By far Madison’s best (worst) piece is called “The aerial Journey of the poet Laureat of the cliosophic Society.” It’s a mythical fantasy where Clio member Samuel Spring encounters Apollo and his muses, who proceed to beat the everloving shit out of him.
Samuel Spring, years after he was the poor subject of Madison's violent fantasy poem.
In the poem, written mostly from Spring’s point of view, Spring recounts a dream he had where he traveled to the domain of the gods and tried to steal Apollo’s laurel wreath so he could gain his poetic skills “And then a poet laureate rise / The dread of whigs of every size.” Instead, Apollo grabbed a big stick and mashed his jaws and head.

Then Euterpe, muse of music, started whipping Spring with a dishcloth full of grease and boiling water on his “sides & back / Which lost its hide at every whack.”

That’s when things got a little weird.
Urania threw a chamber pot
Which from beneath her bed she brought
And struck my eyes & ears & nose
Repeating it with lusty blows.
In such a pickle there I stood
Trickling on every side with blood
So Urania, muse of astronomy, beat this dude’s face to a bloody pulp with a chamber pot that I have to assume was at least filled with urine.

The muses Euterpe and Urania admiring Apollo while awaiting their next victim.
That’s when Clio, muse of history (and inspiration for his society’s name) swoops in to rescue poor bloody Spring.
When Clio, ever grateful muse
Sprinkled my head with healing dews
That has to be more pee, right? Maybe Little Jemmy had a thing for golden showers.

At least Spring is finally getting some relief in the form of muse dew. The worst is surely behind him. Right?
Then took me to her private room
And straight an Eunuch out I come
My voice to render more melodious
A recompense for sufferings odious
The muse of history peed on his head and cut off his balls. That seems like overkill if the only objective was to improve his karaoke game.

In Charles Meynier's painting, Clio the muse of history looks ready to make some Eunuchs.

Clio returned Spring to earth and promised he would be famous, as long as he gave up writing poems about the Whigs:
But mark me well if e’er you try
In poetry with Whigs to vie
Your nature’s bounds you then will pass
And be transformed into an ass
Madison wasn’t just saying Sam Spring would make an ass of himself if he dared poetry-battle the superior Whigs – if Spring didn’t give up the pen, he would turn into a literal donkey, Pinocchio-style.

At the end of the poem, it turned out Spring’s dream was more than just a dream. He forgot Clio's warning...
And wrote an ode and then essay’d
To sing a hymn and lo! He bray’d
This is what happens when you poem-battle James Madison.

Madison was only 20 years old when he wrote this poem, but some of his defining qualities were on display even then – a command of the pen as weapon, an attraction to strong, powerful women (hello, Dolley), and a penchant for doing his best work behind the scenes.

A lifetime later when Madison was 81, he told John Quincy Adams he had “never myself been favored with the inspiration of the Muses.”

If the muses were anything like Madison described, I’d say he got off lucky.

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Madison's Bad Blood with Washington Part IV: Die Hard

Part 1       Part 2       Part 3       Part 4 

The rise and fall of a founding friendship.

Two presidential terms were more than enough for George Washington. In 1796 he published his Farewell Address, a letter announcing his retirement and imparting his final words of wisdom and warning to the American people.

The address covered political parties, foreign policy and religion, but one underlying message ran throughout – James Madison was a weaselly turd.

The Farewell Address

Washington, who made a career of retiring, tried to get out of his presidential gig once before. Four years earlier, he asked his trusted adviser Madison to ghostwrite a farewell letter, unaware at the time that Madison was running the opposition party. Madison delivered a draft, but Washington stuck around for another term because everyone (Madison included) convinced him the Union was too fragile to survive his departure. Nobody wanted to mutiny on a sinking ship.

When partisan politics exploded during his second term, Washington decided he really couldn’t take anymore.

The Story of George Washington ©Candy Cane Press
"Stop waving and get in the damn carriage, George."
Barely on speaking terms with Madison after the Jay Treaty fiasco, Washington asked his new Ghostwriter-in-Chief, Alexander Hamilton, to prepare another farewell address – and to include Madison’s earlier draft at the beginning. On one hand Washington wanted to honor his former friend's work, and on the other he wanted to get Madison's attention so he wouldn't miss what came next - a thinly veiled attack on the political monster he had become.

Washington (in Hamilton’s sexy words) warned that parties could become “potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government.” The appeal of parties was “a fire not to be quenched…lest, instead of warming, it should consume.”

Those burning hot unprincipled men Hamilton wrote about weren’t hypothetical – they were James Madison and Thomas Jefferson. Washington was finally piecing together the treasonable actions they took to advance their party, including conspiring to create an anti-government newspaper funded by the government.

The editor they recruited for The National Gazette was Madison’s college friend, Philip Freneau. “Recruited” might not be the right word for Freneau – he was unleashed. A Princeton-educated poet, Freneau was captured and confined on a British prison ship for six tortuous weeks during the war, making him the perfect weapon for Jefferson and Madison to sic on the Federalist Party. He was Rambo with a quill.
Philip Freneau (pictured) sent George Washington three copies of The National Gazette every day. Because he was a monster.
Freneau portrayed Washington as a tyrannical king, and even wrote a pamphlet describing Washington being executed by guillotine. Washington was so infuriated with "that rascal Freneau" that he decided to awkwardly call him out in his Farewell Address: some of the Gazettes of the United States have teemed with all the Invective that disappointment, ignorance of facts, and malicious falsehoods could invent, to misrepresent my politics and affections; to wound my reputation and feelings; and to weaken, if not entirely destroy the confidence you had been pleased to repose in me; it might be expected at the parting scene of my public life that I should take some notice of such virulent abuse. But, as heretofore, I shall pass them over in utter silence.
Maybe Washington really was going senile, because he doesn't seem to realize that whining about something at length is not the same as passing it over in utter silence. Hamilton wisely convinced Washington to cut that section out – his address needed to be a John Philip Sousa march, not an Alanis Morissette song.

Washington's feelings still resonate throughout the address, especially in passages like this about parties gaining power by misrepresenting their opponents:
You cannot shield yourselves too much against the jealousies and heartburnings which spring from these misrepresentations; they tend to render alien to each other those who ought to be bound together by fraternal affection.
By the end of Washington's presidency, James Madison had rendered himself completely alien to him – a heartburning reversal from 1789 when Washington signed his letters to Madison with a love he reserved for few:
With the most sincere & perfect friendship, I remain, My dear Sir Your Affectionate,
G. Washington 

Die Hard with a Grudge

Washington never got over Madison’s betrayal. In fact, some of the last words he ever spoke were about Little Jemmy, and they were probably obscene.

On December 13, 1799, Washington’s voice was hoarse from a cold so his secretary Tobias Lear read the newspaper aloud to him. When Lear got to news about James Madison endorsing fellow Democratic-Republican James Monroe as Virginia’s next governor, Washington “appeared much affected and spoke with some degree of asperity on the subject.”

Thank you, Kindle dictionary. (Don't tell my dusty Oxford English Dictionary.)
I don't know Washington's exact words about Madison that night, but I know one of his officers said he "swore like an angel" and could dish out profanities “till the leaves shook on the trees.” Based on that, and my leisurely study of actual slang terms from the 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, I believe Washington’s final raspy breaths were probably spent calling James Madison a damned Frenchified dunghill, or maybe Thomas Jefferson’s fart catcher. Perhaps even a chicken-hearted cock robin, and almost definitely a weasel-faced shit sack.

As Washington hissed some or all of these asperities, his blood pressure must have skyrocketed. Maybe the very thought of Madison was enough to make his blood careen from his veins during the four bleedings his doctors performed on his final day, removing an estimated total of 80 ounces or 40% of the blood in his body.

On his deathbed (and woozy from the blood loss) Washington said, "Doctor, I die hard, but I am not afraid to go." It's probably best that he missed out on the 19th century and didn't get to see the presidency dominated for 24 straight years by the top three names on his shit list – Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe.

If Washington had lived ten more years, he would have seen his Federalist policies systematically dismantled with disastrous consequences. The Democratic-Republicans decimated the military, shuttered the National Bank, failed to renew the Jay Treaty, and banned trade with Britain (and everyone else) causing a depression-causing embargo. These actions seemed part of a self-fulfilling prophesy where they hated Britain so much that they goaded her into The War of 1812 to make everyone else hate her too.

If Washington had lived twenty more years, he would have seen another reversal on his policies, with the National Bank reinstated and a trained army established – all by James Madison.

The War of 1812 hit particularly close to home for Madison, as in it literally burned down his home. He was America's first wartime president, and he got to see firsthand the difficulty of fighting a war with a lack of funds and trained soldiers. That experience transformed him. It's a shame it took 15,000 American deaths for Madison to remember the federalist values he once championed, and to start putting his love for the United States ahead of politics.
I like to imagine the White House like Hogwarts School of Wizardry, with magical talking portraits of former presidents. I’d love to hear what this rescued portrait would say to Madison, in all its glorious asperity.

Tell Me Something Good

After my wife read drafts of the first three parts of this series, she asked me if there was anything good about Madison. I struggled to answer.

I could have cited his amazing contributions to the Constitution and Bill of Rights, if he hadn't turned his back on those principles. I admire his work to legislate religious freedom and separate church and state, even though Washington might disagree – he may have had Madison in mind in his Farewell Address when he said "reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle."

I don't blame a lack of religious principles for Madison's turdliness. My biggest beef with him is that he put politics before people. It's hard to look past that, especially when one of those people is John Adams, the president I've identified with most along my journey.

When Jefferson came in second place to Adams in the election of 1796 (making him vice-president under their weird-ass rules), he wrote a nice conciliatory letter to his old friend and political opponent. Madison convinced Jefferson not to send it because it would make him look weak and hurt their cause. That heartless political maneuver helped set the tone for the obstructionism we have today.

Thou shalt not reconcile!
One later act of Madison's slightly redeems him. In 1825, Jefferson asked him to suggest readings for University of Virginia students. Madison suggested Washington’s Inaugural and Farewell Addresses, saying “they may help down what might be less readily swallowed, and contain nothing which is not good.” Madison was telling Jefferson that he agreed with an address dedicated to tearing apart their actions.

Little Jemmy Madison wanted to do the same thing for those students that I set out to do in this series – provide a little light reading about how George Washington's judgment and integrity eventually prevailed, over a couple damned Frenchified shit sacks.

Part 1       Part 2       Part 3       Part 4

Sources: James Madison by Richard Brookhiser; Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power by Jon Meacham; John Adams by David McCullough; Washington: The Indispensable Man by James Thomas Flexner; Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation by Joseph Ellis; The Age of Federalism: The Early American Republic, 1788-1800 by Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick;;

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Madison's Bad Blood with Washington Part III: Damn John Jay!

Part 1       Part 2       Part 3       Part 4

The rise and fall of a founding friendship.
These words were chalked on a fence in Boston in 1795. They just don't make charming hateful graffiti like they used to.
The Revolutionary War ended more than a decade ago, but America and Britain were still working out the kinks of this whole "peace" thing. George Washington sent John Jay to negotiate a treaty with Britain in 1794 to prevent an all-out war with our former motherland. These were his main objectives:
  1. Stop British ships from kidnapping American sailors and impressing them into service.
  2. Make British soldiers leave their forts around the Great Lakes.
  3. Make Britain pay for American ships they stole. 
  4. Make Britain pay for American slaves they freed in Revolutionary War.
Jay succeeded in #2 and #3, totally failed in #1, and didn't even try for #4 because he couldn't care less about compensating slaveowners.
Even though the treaty was better than nothing, its terms were so favorable to Britain that Washington knew it would be extremely unpopular. He and the Senate quickly and quietly approved it, hoping maybe no one would notice.

People noticed.

When details of the treaty got out, the American people were outraged we would accept a deal so one-sided that it basically accepted the Royal Navy's God-given right to abduct American sailors whenever they wanted. John Jay said he could travel across America guided only by the light of his burning effigies. Washington’s house was surrounded by angry citizens cursing his name, and Alexander Hamilton – defending the treaty in public – was hit in the head with a rock.

Detail of a 1795 drawing of John Jay being burned in effigy. This is what angry people did before the internet.
No one was more furious with Jay's Treaty than James Madison. One of the greatest differences between his Democratic-Republican party and Washington's Federalist party was who they sided with in the ongoing war between Britain and France – Democratic-Republicans were all about that France, and the business-oriented Federalists wanted to make nice with Britain because they accounted for 75% of our trade. Not only did Jay's Treaty strongly favor Britain, but it also heavily favored the economic interests of the northern states while screwing the southern ones.

Madison was determined to take advantage of the widespread public outcry to stop the treaty and take down the Federalists. Despite the fact that the House of Representatives had no treaty-making power, he drafted a House resolution formally requesting that Washington hand over the Jay Treaty and records of the negotiations leading up to it.

Washington had zero tolerance for Madison’s shit. Having presided over the Constitutional Convention, Washington knew exactly what power the House was granted and he schooled Madison: “The nature of foreign negotiations requires caution, and their success must often depend on secrecy." The Constitution vests “the power of making treaties in the President, with the advice and consent of the Senate, the principle on which that body was formed confining it to a small number of members." (That's “small number of members.” Not “small members," Jemmy.)

Translation: Treaties are too important for you kids in the House to be messing with, son.

Then Washington brought out the big guns:
“It does not occur to me that the inspection of the papers asked for can be relative to any purpose under the cognizance of the House of Representatives, except that of an impeachment, which the resolution has not expressed.”
You don't have the brains to understand the Constitution, but do you have the balls to impeach George Washington?

Madison's cheeks must have smarted from Washington's passive-aggressive dick slap. He knew impeaching Washington would be political suicide and could literally destroy the fledgling government, so he would have to find another way to derail this treaty.

Madison's next tactic was to do what the House still tries to do if it doesn’t like a law – refuse to fund it. The House might not have treaty-making power, but it makes the budget decisions and could simply not allocate any funds to enforce the treaty, rendering it useless. The Latin term for this legal maneuver is dick move and it never goes out of style.

But Madison underestimated one thing: George Washington’s colossal popularity. He had entered a pissing contest with the wrong man. The sheer force of Washington's influence was too powerful for the House and Madison’s frail little jockey body. As the nation slowly warmed to the war-preventing treaty simply because Washington supported it, more and more members of the House decided to fund it.

Vice President John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail, “The Anarchical Warriours are beat out…by the Arguments of the Friends of Peace and order… Mr. Madison looks worried to death. Pale, withered, haggard.” He had gone up against Washington and suffered a humiliating loss. Recharging his feeble frame with some Mount Vernon and Chill (like he did after the exhausting Virginia Ratification Convention eight years earlier) was no longer an option – that open invitation was closed.

The last straw for Washington came when Madison wrote him a rambling embarrassment of a reply that tried to show respect for his old friend while still insinuating he was abusing or misunderstanding his executive power. “Though Madison would attend a few state dinners at the presidential mansion,” author Richard Brookhiser explained, “he and Washington exchanged no more letters, paid no more visits. The collaboration had been effectively over for years; now so was the friendship.”

According to author Joseph Ellis, Madison "experienced firsthand the cardinal principal of American politics in the 1790s: whoever went face-to-face against Washington was destined to lose."
Defeated, Madison wrote to Jefferson explaining that the House lost their battle against the Jay Treaty because the people "have thence listened to the summons ‘to follow where Washington leads.’” Washington was too damn beloved. There was no winning for the Democratic-Republicans as long as he was in the picture.

Luckily for them, Washington was about to retire – but he wasn’t about to leave the public stage without using his old ghostwriter's services one last time. Washington's Farewell Address would be both an homage to, and a scathing indictment of, Little Jemmy Madison.

NEXT: Madison’s Bad Blood with Washington Part IV: Die Hard

Part 1       Part 2       Part 3       Part 4

Sources: James Madison by Richard Brookhiser; Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power by Jon Meacham; John Adams by David McCullough; Washington: The Indispensable Man by James Thomas Flexner; Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation by Joseph Ellis; The Age of Federalism: The Early American Republic, 1788-1800 by Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick;

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