Debunking the Presidents

Folklore of American leaders

President Barack Obama. Photo: Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images
It looks like the Bush-era tax cuts for the rich will continue, due to a strong Republican leader, Barack Obama. Today Obama changed his slogan from "Yes we can to "Yes, we caved." It's so bad for him, now Democrats want to see his birth certificate. — Jay Leno

IN THE modern age U.S. presidents are routine targets of public derision, often deservedly. While political barbs are nothing new, 100 and 200 years ago we saw our leaders as having been cut from a different, more noble cloth than politicians of today.

Presidential folklore, in the form of jokes, legends, and historical errata, reflects that.

As a child, George Washington could not tell a lie, or so the story goes, even if it meant confessing to chopping down his father's beloved cherry tree. It's "common knowledge" that young Abraham Lincoln wrote his homework on the back of a shovel with a lump of coal because he didn't have a pencil — no lame excuses from "Honest Abe." As a young storekeeper in New Salem, Illinois, Lincoln walked a mile on foot to return a customer's change. These are examples of the sort of "true grit" qualities we wish for in our national leaders.

From 'The Great Emancipator' to 'The Obamination'

Every American of a certain age was raised on such tales, some true, most not. The crux of presidential folklore isn't the veracity of the stories, but how well they jibe with our sense of the men's characters.

Presidential nicknames illustrate the point.

Lincoln is remembered as "The Great Emancipator."  Washington was "The Father of His Country."  Jefferson, "The Sage of Monticello."  The most mythic of contemporary presidents, Ronald Reagan, earned the title "The Great Communicator." Bill Clinton was tarred from day one with the nickname "Slick Willy," an appellation only slightly less ignominious than "Tricky Dick," Richard Nixon's earned sobriquet.

G.W. Bush's most popular nickname was "Dubya," a take-off on his middle initial. In some quarters he was known unflatteringly as "Shrub" or "Dumbya." The charismatic Barack Obama, who campaigned on the lofty slogans "Hope" and "Change," became known to his detractors as (sarcastically) "The One," "The Obamessiah," and (in all seriousness) "The Obamination." 

Wooden Teeth and the Gettysburg Address

Other bits of presidential folklore are more on the order of historical boo-boos. It's said, for example, that Washington's dentures were made of wood. They were not. Nor were they manufactured by Paul Revere, as many people believe. Longstanding tradition holds that Lincoln wrote the Gettysburg Address on the back of an envelope, which is also untrue. Grand speeches are rarely dashed off in the manner of pop songs.

Another curious, often-repeated myth pertaining to Honest Abe holds that the hands of his statue in the Lincoln Memorial were intentionally sculpted to form the letters "A" and "L" in American Sign Language. Not so, according to the National Park Service. The "hidden message" was purely coincidental. Also untrue is the odd claim that the face of Confederate leader Robert E. Lee, Lincoln's nemesis during the Civil War, was secretly carved into back of the same statue.

What would the American mythos be without its conspiracy theories?

A Presidential Folklore Sampler: