Call Me By My Name (For President’s Day)
I’m hardly qualified to run a country, but I do have one thing in common with a quarter of the men who’ve held the top U.S. job.
One day, I will be President of the United States of America.
Isn’t that every young boy’s dream at some point? I assumed as much when I was an underage dreamer growing up in Kissimmee, Florida, from the late ’70s to the ’80s. Hopefully, times have changed enough that young girls now count it among their aspirations, too.
Ah, life goals. Personally, at various times, I wanted to be a cook, a pediatrician, a rock journalist, and yes, President of the United States of America. Considering that I can barely bring water to a boil, I don’t really understand the cook thing, or why I didn’t aim (higher) for chef status, but that’s a psyche dissection for another post.
I started preparing for the Presidential gig when I was seven years old by learning everything I could about all 39 of them at the time (1977). After obsessing over a World Book encyclopedia entry on “Presidents” for an hour one day during a class break (I basically wrote down the names of all the President men, in order, in perfect cursive), I raised my hand and approached my second-grade teacher’s desk to make an announcement.
“Mrs. Prosser, guess what: I can name all the Presidents of the United States… in order.”
“Really? That’s great, Jerry. Let me hear them.”
“George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson…”
After I finished listing them (and mangling the pronounciations of at least two names: Buchanan and Eisenhower), Mrs. Prosser made me recite the list to the entire room. And thus began my Highlands Elementary School second-grade classroom tour.
I wonder if my BUCK-un-un (for Buchanan) and e-WISH-en-er (for Eisenhower) made me the butt of teachers’-lounge jokes that week. I was only seven years old, people!
But I digress….
I went from door-to-door, sharing my Presidential knowledge and pretty much typecasting myself from that moment on. Like Joan Collins will forever be known first and foremost as Alexis on Dynasty, I was known first and foremost by many of my classmates, until the day I graduated from high school, as the black boy with the funny accent who knew all the Presidents in second grade.
Today, as a working journalist, I no longer harbor any illusions about my Presidential future. But if I were still hanging on to them, I’d have one great advantage: My mother named me right.
In fact, she named three of her children right. More names of U.S. Presidents begin with the letter “J” (11 of them!) than any other letter.
In fact, my big brother Jeffrey James might have made an excellent Presidential candidate, judging from his middle name alone. More U.S. Presidents — a whopping six — have gone by James than any other name. There was James Madison (4th), James Monroe (5th), James Polk (12th), James Buchanan (15th), James A. Garfield (20th), and James (Jimmy) Earl Carter Jr. (39th).
Next up is John, with five — John Adams (2nd), John Quincy Adams (6th), John Tyler (10th), John Calvin Coolidge (30th), and John F. Kennedy (35th) — followed by William. The name that, like James, is more than fit for a British monarch has been given to a quintet of U.S. leaders: William Henry Harrison (9th), William McKinley (25th), William Howard Taft (27th), and William (Bill) Jefferson Clinton (42nd).
We’ve had three Georges (Washington, 1st; Bush Sr., 41st; and Bush Jr., 43rd), two Andrews (Jackson, 7th; and Johnson, 17th), two Franklins (Pierce, 14th; and Delano Roosevelt, 32nd), a Ronald (Reagan, 40th), and a Donald (Trump, 45th).
Shockingly, we’ve had a Tom (Thomas Jefferson, 3rd), a Dick (Richard Nixon, 37th), and a Harry (S. Truman, 33rd), but never a Michael. Sorry, Mr. Dukakis. (Technically, we’ve had two Toms, if we count Thomas Woodrow Wilson, 28th.)
As for repeat surnames, they’ve belonged mostly to presidents who were related. John Adams was the father of John Quincy Adams. Benjamin Harrison (23rd) called William Henry Harrison his grandfather. Theodore Roosevelt (26th) and Franklin Delano Roosevelt were fifth cousins, and George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush were father and son.
We’ve had one other case of surname-history repeating: Andrew Johnson — not be confused with Andrew Jackson — and Lyndon B. Johnson (36th). In addition to a Jackson and two Johnsons, we’ve had both a Tyler and a Taylor (Zachary, 12th).
Meanwhile, Thomas Jefferson and William Jefferson Clinton have one name in common. If DeWitt Clinton had defeated James Madison in the Election of 1812 to become the 5th U.S. President, William Jefferson Clinton, like Andrew Johnson, would share each of his names with at least one other Commander-in-Chief.
Then there are the originals, first names that belong to just one U.S. President. The more conventional ones include a Martin (Van Buren, 8th), a Harry (S. Truman, 33rd), and a Gerald (Ford, 38th) — along with the aforementioned Zachary (Taylor), Benjamin (Harrison), Theodore (Roosevelt), Richard (Nixon), Ronald (Reagan), and Donald (Trump).
The Oval Office also has been the professional stomping ground of men whose given names (and sometimes middle names, too) have been considerably more unique. In addition to one Millard (Fillmore, 13th), one Abraham (Lincoln, 16th), one Hiram Ulysses (Grant, 18th), one Rutherford Birchard (Hayes, 17th), and one Chester (Alan Arthur, 21st), there’s been a single Warren Gamaliel (Harding, 29th), a solitary Herbert Clark (Hoover, 31st), a sole Dwight (D. Eisenhower, 34th), and a lone Lyndon Baines.
Add a Grover to that last list. Our 22nd and 24th U.S. President (the only one to serve two non-consecutive terms, and the only one to marry for the first time while in office) was actually Stephen Grover Cleveland, but nobody ever calls him that.
And, finally, there’s Barack Hussein Obama (44th), which, like the man, is in a class all by itself.
The moral of this post: The odds of one day becoming U.S. President may randomly favor some (Jameses and Johns) over others (Mikes — uh oh, VP Pence), but the dream is open to us all.