We're saying "Hail To The Chiefs" on this Presidents' Day Eve, to some who are not on anybody's short list of greats. Mo Rocca reports:
Quick: Who's the president who delivered the longest inaugural speech in history and served the shortest time in office?
William Henry Harrison may not be first in the hearts of his countrymen, but he's a favorite in presidential trivia contests.
"He was the only president whose wife never made it into the White House," said New York Times columnist Gail Collins. "Poor Mrs. Harrison was still packing in Ohio when he died."
Collins is the author of a book about our ninth president.
Harrison's time in office may have been a trifling 31 days, but his road to the White House is legendary.
The campaign of 1840 was "very modern," said Collins. "It's even MORE modern than we are sometimes."
There were song, lots of spin, merchandise, and the first campaign slogan: Tippecanoe and Tyler too!"
Harrison was an Army general, nicknamed the "hero of Tippecanoe," after the site of one Indian battle.
But, notes Collins, "All of his victories involved him having way, way, way more people than the other side."
A mere technicality! He was likable and had no strong political beliefs - a perfect candidate for the newly-formed Whigs.
And he looked "sort of presidential," said Collins. "He was very sort of tall and thin and, you know, with good posture. Great nose, very Roman kind of thing."
But Harrison's ticket to the White House was an anti-Harrison editorial that derided him as a crotchety old soldier drinking hard cider in a log cabin.
In a brilliant demonstration of political jujitsu, Harrison's party EMBRACED the caricature. Replica log cabins stocked with hard cider appeared at Harrison campaign stops everywhere.
His opponent, Martin Van Buren, was tarred as the rich, out-of-touch guy.
Ironic, since Harrison was actually born here on a plantation in Virginia - not a splinter of truth in the log cabin story.
"We see this all still today," said Collins, "that there's a desire, if you happen to be an aristocrat running for public office, to make yourself seem like one of the people."
The public bought the image - and everything associated with it.
Eighty percent of eligible voters turned out - a record that stands to this day. And at a time when life expectancy was just 39-and-a-half, William Henry Harrison was sworn in at 68.
That, noted Rocca, would be like 110 today! "Yeah, something amazing. But he was very hale and hearty," said Collins.
To prove it, William Harrison delivered a two-hour speech on his inauguration day . . . in the rain, without an overcoat.
He died 31 days later.
"He's a great lesson in bringing an umbrella," said Collins, "and not making a two-hour speech. In general, I think we could rally around the idea of not making a two-hour speech anywhere, under any circumstances, but particularly not while you're standing in the rain in March!"
For more info:
- "William Henry Harrison (The American Presidents Series)" by Gail Collins (Times Books)
- Berkeley Plantation (William Henry Harrison's birthplace), one of Virginia's most historic plantations