The Highest Office in the Land
After winning the Revolutionary War, General George Washington probably could have had anything he wanted. Some of his army officers suggested he should be crowned king. If Washington had agreed to be king, and the crown had been passed down to his heirs, do you know who would be running America today? Paul Emery Washington, of San Antonio, Texas, retired regional manager of a building-supply company!
Luckily, Washington didn’t want to be king, and instead, in 1789, he was elected and sworn in as the first president of the United States. For the last 225 years, instead of “His Majesty,” we’ve referred to our head of state as just plain “Mr. President.” (And maybe, someday soon, “Madam President.”)
MAYBE THIS SHOULD BE THE HANSON MONUMENT IN HANSON, D.C.
Strictly speaking, Washington wasn’t the first American president—he was the ninth! Before the Constitution was ratified, eight different men presided over the Continental Congress. If you count these guys, America’s real first president was a Maryland tobacco planter named John Hanson.
But even though the United States is a democracy, the president still gets plenty of pomp and ceremony. In this chapter, we’ll take a look at some of the traditions and trappings that have grown up over the centuries around the highest office in the land.
The bald eagle on the official presidential seal holds both a bundle of arrows and an olive branch, to symbolize the president’s leadership in war and peace. Many people believe that the eagle is redrawn to face the arrows during times of war, but you should know better, Junior Geniuses. That’s just a myth.
The seal has lots of hidden thirteens, to symbolize the thirteen original states of the union.
If you watch the president on TV, you’ll see the seal printed everywhere he goes. The Mars candy company even puts the seal on special presidential boxes of M&M’s, available only at the White House and on Air Force One.
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue
George Washington never lived in the White House! It took ten years to build the city now named for him, so Washington governed from executive mansions in New York and Philadelphia instead.
John Adams moved into the White House in November 1800 as its paint was still drying. Not a single room was completed, and the First Family used the large East Room, where ceremonies and receptions are held today, to hang their laundry. The day after moving in, Adams wrote to his wife, Abigail:
“I Pray Heaven to Bestow the Best of Blessings on This House and All that shall hereafter inhabit it. May none but Honest and Wise Men ever rule under this Roof!”
Today these words appear above the fireplace in the White House State Dining Room.
The Adams family even had to use an outhouse, as the White House had no indoor bathrooms or running water! But don’t worry about the president today having to run out to the Rose Garden in the middle of the night when he feels the call of nature. Since 1800, the mansion has been renovated many times with all the latest conveniences:
Even before he got into hot water, Richard Nixon wasn’t much of a swimmer. In 1969, he ordered FDR’s pool covered up to expand the White House pressroom. His successor, Gerald Ford, promptly had a new outdoor pool dug in the South Lawn.
Today the White House has 6 levels, 132 rooms, 28 fireplaces, 147 windows, 35 bathrooms, a bowling alley, and a movie theater. Even with all that space, things can get crowded. President James Buchanan used to invite over so many houseguests that he once wound up sleeping on the floor in a hallway!
All that luxury isn’t free, however. Every president gets a monthly bill from the White House and is expected to pay all his family’s costs, everything from groceries to toiletries to dry cleaning. And the staff says that new presidents always complain about the cost!
All About the Washingtons
George Washington, one of the richest Americans of his time, thought that the president shouldn’t get paid at all, but instead just have his expenses reimbursed. Congress disagreed, and voted a $25,000 salary for the president. At the time, that was 2 percent of the national budget—the equivalent of $76 billion today! Today’s presidential salary: $400,000 a year. Not bad, for government work.
The Earpiece Corps
When you see Secret Service agents on TV talking into their sleeves (actually a small microphone on their wrists) what are they saying? Often they use code words, like “POTUS” (President of the United States) and “FLOTUS” (First Lady of the United States). All modern presidents have had their own individual code names as well. Here’s a top secret look behind the sunglasses.
Lyric and Lark
Velvet and Venus
Sugarfoot and Sunbonnet
Professor, Packman, Panda
Derby, Deckhand, Diamond, Dynamo
Rhyme, Riddler, Ribbon, Reliant
Trailblazer, Tripper, Trapline, Tuner
Turquoise and Twinkle
Radiance and Rosebud
In an epic example of bad timing, Abraham Lincoln signed the law that created the Secret Service on April 14, 1865—the same day he was shot. But the Secret Service was actually formed as a branch of the Department of the Treasury, mostly to fight counterfeiting. They didn’t take on their most famous duty—protecting the president and other VIPs—until after the McKinley assassination in 1901.
Back then, security wasn’t such a big deal. Calvin Coolidge used to enjoy giving his security detail the slip and going for walks by himself out on F Street. But today, the president receives more than thirty death threats every day, so his protection has to be airtight. Every president back to Reagan has had an official food tester who tastes every dish served, to make sure it’s not poisoned. (If the food tester isn’t there, POTUS can’t eat lunch.) In 2007, Austrian newspapers even reported that during a state visit to Vienna, President Bush used a special toilet that collected his waste. The toilet was flown back to the U.S., making sure that no poop was left behind!
The president often wears bulletproof protection under his suit, and his car is equipped with smoke grenades, tear gas, its own oxygen supply, a firefighting system, and a blood bank in the trunk equipped with the president’s blood type.
Nowadays, the president can’t just hop on his horse and ride to church alone, the way Lincoln did. When POTUS goes anywhere today, it’s a pretty big project. Here’s what his motorcade looks like.
Many presidents grow to have close relationships with their security.
• EISENHOWER, who loved to golf, got tired of squirrels tearing up the White House putting green, so he tasked his Secret Service with drawing up a countermeasure called Operation Squirrel Seduction.
• RONALD REAGAN, in retirement and suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, loved to spend his days skimming leaves off his pool. He didn’t know his agents were carefully replacing all the leaves, so he’d always have some to remove!
• BEST OF ALL, GERALD FORD used to blame the Secret Service whenever he passed gas—which was often. “Did you do that?” he would ask loudly. “Show some class!” His agents must not have minded. One of them even wound up marrying his daughter, Susan!
Prank of America
All this security doesn’t always work perfectly. In 2007, an Icelandic high school student named Vifill Atlason phoned the White House pretending to be the president of Iceland, and managed to schedule a meeting with President Bush before his hoax was discovered!
In 1945, Franklin Roosevelt became the first commander in chief ever to travel in a special presidential airplane, when he flew to the Soviet Union to attend the Yalta Conference in a plane called the Sacred Cow. Today, any plane with the president on board gets a cooler call sign: Air Force One.
There are currently two Boeing 747s in the president’s fleet. These are no ordinary passenger jets—they each have lots of special accommodations for the president,
including a workout room, a five-chef galley that can serve two thousand meals, and a mini-hospital. The planes can also be refueled in midair, so the president can keep flying indefinitely in case of a national emergency. He’d never be out of touch with Washington, since each plane has state-of-the-art communication equipment, including 85 phones and 19 televisions. In total, its instruments use 238 miles of wiring. Air Force One is even specially shielded to withstand a nuclear strike!
Near the end of his second term, James Madison burned out on Washington and spent four full months just chilling at his Virginia estate. What’s the modern name for the president’s private retreat, which was called Shangri-La until President Eisenhower renamed it in 1953 after his grandson?
Some presidential traditions happen every year. Here’s a helpful calendar, in case you’re ever elected. (Not for a few more years, though. The Constitution says the president has to be at least thirty-five.)
The State of the Union Address
The Constitution says that the president “shall from time to time give to Congress information of the State of the Union.” Thomas Jefferson hated public speaking (some historians think he might have had a stutter), so he used to just write Congress a letter. But ever since Woodrow Wilson, presidents have given their annual update as a speech to a joint session of Congress. Every year, the whole Cabinet attends the speech—except for one “designated survivor,” who is taken to a secret location. That way, if there’s some emergency, at least one person in line to succeed to the presidency is still safe.