“Shake hands and say you’re sorry.”

It’s what every dad says to every son after said son has gotten into a fight. And when you’re six or eight or twelve, it actually works.

By the time you get to be president, however, things are all blown out of proportion. It’s just not that easy anymore. There’s that run for reelection, after all. There’s saving face. There’s ego and power and political machismo at stake.

So you get into a political skirmish, and you kill off a reputation. You get into a battle of ideologies, and you kill off a long-standing friendship. Or you go completely off the deep end and kill the man, your opponent, altogether.

Hey, you’re president—leader of the Western world. Killing off your opponent, therefore, is sometimes all in a day’s work.

Political skirmishes

* * *

People complain about all the fighting in Congress, but today’s squabbles are nothing compared to the decades before the Civil War, when fistfights were common and representatives routinely carried weapons. During one debate in 1850, Senator Henry Foote of Mississippi actually pulled a gun on his colleague from Missouri, Senator Thomas Hart Benton.


Let’s say you’re vice president and minding your own business when one day along comes Alexander Hamilton (yes, the same Alexander Hamilton who is the subject of the hot, hip musical Hamilton on Broadway), calling you “despicable” and “dangerous” to your face—what do you do?

If you’re Aaron Burr, vice president under Thomas Jefferson, you challenge him to a duel and then swiftly kill him.

Ahh, but now what to do?

Let’s learn again from Burr. He was charged with murder in New York (where Hamilton actually died) and charged and indicted in New Jersey (where the duel occurred). He might have done what Spiro Agnew did more than a century and a half later, which was to claim that a sitting vice president had the protection of executive privilege and therefore could not be indicted. Instead Burr did a far more brilliant thing: he returned to Washington, D.C., and resumed his duties as vice president and president of the Senate as if nothing had happened. Burr knew he was safe since neither New York nor New Jersey had any jurisdiction in Washington, D.C., and thus couldn’t extradite him.

Not the End of Burr

Remarkably, Burr was allowed to finish out his term. As the term ended he began to concoct a grand scheme that would allow him not only to get away with the murder of Hamilton but also to involve a group of co-conspirators who would help him grab parts of the Louisiana and Orleans Territories.

Why? He planned to create and rule an empire that would stretch far into Mexico.

By anyone’s definition, what Burr planned was treasonous (not to mention insane), and when Thomas Jefferson got wind of it, he called for Burr’s arrest.

By now Burr’s life was pretty complicated. First, he was wanted for murder. Second, he was wanted for treason. Third, he found out it was one of his own co-conspirators who tipped President Jefferson off to the plan.

So he did the only reasonable thing; he turned himself in. Again he was indicted. This time he stood trial. And miraculously, he was acquitted when Chief Justice John Marshall ruled that one could only be found guilty of an act of treason if the act had been attested to by at least two witnesses.

Again Burr made a wise move: he fled to Europe, where he tried to sell Napoleon on a plan to conquer Florida. Four years later, when he felt it was safe to return to the United States, he went back to New York and his old law practice.

“I Shot Him, Sir”: Part One

Dick Cheney, of course, made history on February 11, 2006, for being the first US vice president since Aaron Burr to point a gun at another man and pull the trigger.

In Cheney’s case, the incident was a hunting accident. But Cheney’s early response to the shooting was much like Burr’s: after shooting his hunting partner, seventy-eight-year-old Harry Whittington, Dick Cheney went back to work in Washington without making any sort of statement to the press about what happened.

“I Shot Him, Sir”: Part Two

Burr wasn’t the only one fighting duels. By some accounts, Andrew Jackson was involved in over one hundred—most to defend the honor of his wife, Rachel.

In fact, Jackson was a walking armory: he had a bullet in his chest from an 1806 duel and another in his arm from a barroom fight in 1813.

The barroom shooter was Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton. When Jackson was elected to the Senate, the two sat side by side and became close friends. Or as Benton said, “General Jackson was a great man. I shot him, Sir,” and,“Yes, I had a fight with Jackson. A fellow was hardly in the fashion who didn’t.”

“I Tonged Him, Sir”

James Monroe once got so angry at his secretary of treasury that he chased him out of the White House with a pair of red-hot fire tongs.

On another day, when President Monroe invited the ministers of both Britain and France over to the White House for dinner, things didn’t quite work out as planned. In fact, relations got so heated between the two ministers that they got into a fight, and both had their swords drawn before Monroe could break them apart.


Well, he may not have had a .32-caliber gun in his pocket or a razor in his shoe, but politically Richard Nixon was every bit as bad as “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown,” and he was always getting into fights just like a mean old junkyard dog.

It all started when he was thirty-two and responded to a classified ad in his local newspaper. It was an ad placed by local Republicans; they were holding a talent search for a young veteran who leaned to the right but who had no political experience.

Their goal? To enter the young man into the race for a local seat in the House of Representatives, which had been held by the same Democrat for ten years.

Nixon as a Lightweight

Nixon took to politicking like a piranha. When his wealthy Republican supporters told him to attack, he went straight for his opponent’s throat, stretching the truth to make it look like the incumbent—who had recently been named Best Congressman West of the Mississippi by a group of Washington journalists—actually had the support of a communist group.

It was a brilliant strategy on two counts. First, Nixon’s opponent was caught off guard and forced to defend himself against mostly baseless negative charges. Second, even if the incumbent had wanted to retaliate with a negative campaign of his own, Nixon had no political history upon which to draw.

Nixon won by 67,874 votes to 49,431, and his political modus operandi was set.

There is nothing I love as much as a good fight.


Nixon as a Welterweight

The next time Nixon stepped into the ring, he was a member of the House Un-American Activities Committee and his opponent was Algier Hiss. Nixon rose to national prominence as a result of the Hiss case and was easily reelected to the House of Representatives.

Although the Hiss case was for many years a source of great controversy, today historians and political scientists generally agree that Hiss was, in fact, a communist.

Nixon as a Middleweight

It was time for Nixon to run for the Senate. His opponent was incumbent Helen Gahagan Douglas, who had held the seat for four years. It was during this battle that Nixon won the nickname “Tricky Dick.” He won the election (and the nickname) by labeling Helen Douglas the “pink lady” and issuing propaganda listing the number of times she and a known communist House member from New York had cast the same votes. While it was true Congresswoman Douglas had voted the same as the communist Congressman Marcantonio as many as 354 times, Nixon neglected to mention in his propaganda that he himself had voted the same as Marcantonio 112 times, as had many of his fellow Republicans.

Regardless of the morality of Nixon’s charges, they worked, and he won his way into the Senate while also making a name for himself in Washington and nationally.

Years later, when asked about his smear campaign against Congresswoman Douglas, Nixon replied, “I’m sorry about that episode. I was a very young man.”

Nixon as a Junior Heavyweight

Nixon’s next opponent was the press—and he was becoming a smart boxer, learning how to communicate directly with the voter.

When Ike was nominated for president by the Republicans in 1952, Nixon was his first choice for running mate. Nixon, after all, was the perfect foil for Eisenhower’s squeaky-clean, paternal image.

Then the trouble began. The New York Post ran a story headlined “SECRET NIXON FUND.” The story reported that Nixon had a secret eighteen-thousand-dollar slush fund he used to pay for expenses. The story was enough to kill Nixon’s career—and given the way he had campaigned in the past, he had a lot of enemies who would have loved to exploit the story. And that was just the Democrats. On the Republican side there were also many who wanted to see Ike drop Nixon from the ticket.

Ike, however, kept a cool head. If Nixon could prove himself innocent and clear his name, Ike said, then he could remain on the ticket. And Ike was more than pleasantly surprised with the result of the flap, for Nixon not only cleared his name but also generated a flood of phone calls and letters to the Republican National Committee demanding he be allowed to remain on the ticket.

Here’s how Nixon turned the tide: he used seventy-five thousand dollars of the Republican National Committee’s money to speak on national television for thirty minutes about his eighteen-thousand-dollar secret fund. In his speech he exposed the “facts” behind his personal finances: he and his wife Pat had a two-year-old Oldsmobile and owned a small amount of equity in their homes in California and Washington, D.C., but had no other real assets like stocks or bonds.

Then Nixon really laid it on strong. “Pat doesn’t have a mink coat,” he said, “but she does have a respectable Republican cloth coat. And I always tell her she’d look good in anything.”

Finally, Nixon’s confession:

A man down in Texas heard Pat on the radio mention the fact that our two youngsters would like to have a dog and, believe it or not, the day before we left on this campaign we got a message from Union Station in Washington that they had a package for us. We went down to get it. You know what it was? It was a little cocker spaniel in a crate that had been sent all the way from Texas—black and white, spotted, and our little girl Tricia, the six-year-old, named it Checkers. And you know, the kids, like all kids, loved the dog, and I just want to say this right now, that regardless of what they say about it, we are going to keep it.

Thus Nixon won the hearts and votes of America … and Ike. When Nixon and the general met the next day, Eisenhower greeted Nixon with a handshake, a grin, and the words: “You’re my boy.”

In spite of his success it should be noted that Nixon at no time during his speech attempted to explain the eighteen-thousand-dollar slush fund.

If I’m a traitor, the United States is in a helluva shape.”


Checkers, Anyone?

Checkers, by the way, died in 1964 and is

buried at the Bide-A-Wee Pet Cemetery on

Long Island outside New York City—

although there is a movement afoot by the

Nixon Library to have him exhumed and

reburied next to the president in Yorba Linda,


Nixon Takes His First Loss … and His Next … and His Next …

Following his successful runs for the vice presidency as Ike’s running mate in 1952 and 1956, Nixon lost his bid for the presidency to Kennedy in 1960. Next he ran for governor of California against incumbent Pat Brown in 1962—and lost. And he lost his battle against the press when he held a press conference on the day after his defeat in the governor’s race and announced: “This is my last news conference…You won’t have Dick Nixon to kick around anymore.”

Finally: Nixon As “Heeeeavyweight Chaaaampiiiion of the Woooorld”

Imagine you are visiting a good friend after a long spell has passed. The last time you stopped by, about four years earlier, your friend’s eight-year-old son was nothing but trouble; he constantly demanded attention by whatever means it took to get it. He was loud and rude and relentless.

Today, as you stare at the polite, well-spoken twelve-year-old young man before you, you ask yourself, is this really the same boy?

Like a little boy who had finally grown up, Richard Nixon shed his shrill, combative shell and became a man who was in control of himself and the world around him. Instead of acting like an attack dog, he began acting like a statesman. Instead of hunting communists, he became a strong proponent of detente with the Soviet Union and a rapprochement with the communist government of China. This led to the beginning of the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) with the Soviets. And in 1972 he traveled to both China and Russia and became the first US president ever to visit either of these countries.

Nixon’s first term was not all rosy, however—the escalation of the Vietnam War cost many lives and caused great strife and havoc at home.

The New Nixon Falls Apart

Call it paranoia or call it fear of failure … or give it some other name copped from the annals of pop psychology, but the burglary, the cover-up, and the tapes (missing as well as accounted for)—the string of events most of us call Watergate—were all executed in vain. By most accounts, Nixon was already a shoo-in for reelection, even without the “dirty tricks.”

And finally, a moment of silence for Richard Nixon

* * *

“Can you imagine what Nixon would have been had somebody loved him? … He would have been a great, great man had somebody loved him.”

—Henry Kissinger, Richard Nixon’s Secretary of State


Margaret Truman, Harry’s daughter, once tried her hand at being a professional singer—but she sure didn’t get much praise from the press.

At least one critic, however, found out that criticizing the daughter of the president can be a tricky business. After Paul Hume of the Washington Post gave Margaret a negative review, he got a letter from her father, the president, warning him that if they ever met he would need “a new nose and plenty of beefsteak.”


From Alfred Steinberg’s book Sam Johnson’s Boy, we learn of this exchange between Senate Majority Leader LBJ and Newsweek reporter Sam Shaffer:

“If you want to know what Lyndon Baines Johnson was going to do at the national convention,” Johnson screamed, “why didn’t you come to Lyndon Baines Johnson and ask him what Lyndon Baines Johnson was going to do?”

“All right,” said Shaffer, hiding all signs of intimidation, “What is Lyndon Baines Johnson going to do at the convention?”

“I don’t know,” was the answer.

“Why do you come and ask me, the leader of the Western world, a chicken-shit question like that?”

—LBJ, in response to a reporter’s question he obviously deemed trivial


As you may recall, when running for president the first time, George W. Bush campaigned on a theme of “civility” and often spoke of “changing the tone in Washington.”

Which struck some people as odd after a microphone caught him making the following remark to running mate Dick Cheney at a planned campaign stop near Chicago while the crowd cheered, a marching band played in the background, and George and Dick just kept waving, waving, waving to the large crowd of adoring supporters:

“There’s Adam Clymer, major league asshole from the New York Times.”

To which Dick Cheney simply replied, with all the civility and tone-changing attitude he could muster:

“Yeah…big time.”


They had once been the best of friends. In fact, while Teddy Roosevelt was in office, he groomed William Howard Taft to replace him.

When joined by a third friend, Elihu Root, they called themselves “The Three Musketeers.” Teddy Roosevelt was D’Artagnan (of course), Taft was Porthos, and Elihu Root was Athos. In reality these three men were perhaps the most powerful men in the world, for Roosevelt was president, and Taft and Root were his secretaries of war and state respectively.

Roosevelt and Taft were an unlikely pair of friends. Roosevelt was a man of action, a wound-up cyclotron of energy and excitement, a rugged outdoorsman and soldier who met life head-on and was always headed out the door for a new and grand adventure.

Taft, on the other hand, was large (sometimes weighing as much as 330 pounds) and slow-moving and required so much sleep that his closest aide had learned to cough loudly to wake him when he nodded off during meetings.

Perhaps it was Roosevelt’s secret in life, but he always brought out the best in the people around him. His influence over Taft provides the perfect example of this. Taft found Teddy’s attention and trust to be flattering and confidence-boosting. He became, you might say, a new man, for he was always eager to please, and here now was a man to serve who was so much larger than life—you could even say Teddy was much larger than Taft himself. With Roosevelt solidly behind him, Taft was easily elected president. However, once in office Taft discovered that no matter how large his feet were, it was not so easy to fill the presidential shoes of Theodore Roosevelt—and when he turned to ask Roosevelt for help, the former president was gone, off to Africa on safari and on other far-flung adventures.

Taft made some mistakes. He did some things that displeased his old friend Teddy. And by the time Teddy Roosevelt returned to the States, the damage was done. From Roosevelt’s perspective, Taft had turned his back on what he—as president—had begun. Their friendship ended both bitterly and publicly.

Taft was devastated by the loss. In truth, he had never wanted to be president. He had only pursued the office to please his ambitious wife, who wanted to be First Lady, and to help his friend Teddy continue to carry out the policies they both believed in.

Meanwhile, an angry Roosevelt decided to run against his former friend for the Republican nomination when it came time for Taft to run for reelection.

The fight for the party’s support was bitter, leaving the two ex-friends calling each other names like “weakling,” “puzzlewit,” and “fathead with the brains of a guinea pig” (Roosevelt of Taft) and “egotist” and “demagogue” (Taft of Roosevelt). Taft eventually won the Republican Party’s nomination, while Roosevelt started his own party to run against him. Ironically, neither won, for the Republican Party split the vote and Democrat Woodrow Wilson won with 41.8 percent of the vote. Roosevelt took second with 27.4 percent, and Taft took third with 23.2 percent.

Taft, of course, was the real loser in more ways than one. Not only had he lost the election, but he had also lost the friend who had helped him grow from caterpillar to butterfly.

Taft writes a letter

* * *

• “When I am addressed as ‘Mr. President’ I turn to see whether you are not at my elbow.”

• “I want you to know that I do nothing in the Executive Office without considering what you would do under the same circumstances.”

• “I can never forget that the power that I now exercise was a voluntary transfer from you to me.”

What color was Taft’s parachute?

* * *

After serving as president, Taft went on to the Supreme Court, even becoming chief justice. Ironically, this was really the job he had always wanted; he only ran for president to please Teddy and his own ambitious wife.

As Taft himself once said, “Next to my wife and children, [the Court] is the nearest thing to my heart.” And “The truth is that in my present life [as chief justice] I don’t remember that I was ever president.”

Years Later, a Hug and a Handshake

Five years later, while checking into Chicago’s Blackstone Hotel, Taft was informed by a clerk that Theodore Roosevelt was at that moment upstairs in the restaurant dining alone. Taft made his way to the dining room immediately and, according to William Manners’s TR and Will:

Looking about, Taft finally located TR at a little table across the room and walked quickly toward him. Intent on his meal though TR was, the sudden stillness in the dining room caused him to look up. He immediately threw down his napkin and rose, his hand extended. They shook hands vigorously and slapped each other on the back. Those in the dining hall cheered, and it was not until then that TR and Will Taft realized that they had an audience and bowed and smiled to it. Then they sat down and chatted for a half hour.

As we say today, closure is a wonderful thing. And for Teddy and Taft, time was of the essence, for Roosevelt died less than a year later.

Taft later expressed his feelings about their reconciliation meeting:

I want to say to you how glad I am that Theodore and I came together after that long painful interval. Had he died in a hostile state of mind toward me, I would have mourned the fact all my life. I loved him always and cherish his memory.

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