As we head into election season, we learn a lot about the presidential candidates, sometimes much more than they want us to know. But how much do we really know about the American presidents, or indeed, the American presidency itself? Kenneth C. Davis knows a lot about the presidency. He's a historian and author of the new book, "Don't Know Much About the American Presidents."
We assume that the presidency has existed forever because it has become such a fixture in American history and politics. But Davis points out that the office was invented at the Constitutional Convention. "They wanted somebody who could act 'with vigor,' as Alexander Hamilton put it, somebody who could take charge." But they didn't want him to be too strong. "They did not want a king."
There are many myths about the presidents, but Davis shows us that the truth is often stranger than fiction. For example, during Grover Cleveland's first run for office, the headlines came out that he had a child out of wedlock. Cleveland told his staff to tell the truth, and rather surprisingly, this did not cost him too much politically.
Even Millard Fillmore, often remembered only for being unmemorable, has an interesting story. "An apprentice to a tailor at a young age, [Fillmore] didn't learn to read until he was much older. [He was] a real, true self-made man." Nonetheless, he was "one of the more disastrous of our American presidents."