BECAUSE OF my reputation as a presidential trivialist extraordinaire, I have been asked if the fact that a president and two ex-presidents spent the night in the White House last Monday was a first.
(Jimmy Carter and George Bush were the exes. Inappropriately, Republican Bush slept in Democrat Andy Jackson's old bed, and Democrat Carter slept in Republican Abe Lincoln's.)
I'm pretty sure this was a first. I read a reporter's statement to that effect in The Evening Sun. I can't think of a precedent. But I've learned from alert readers on several occasions over the years that my (or others') confident assertions that some item of trivia is new is not.
A first or not, the tri-presidential pajama party was a heartwarming political event that shows that the United States is just as tradition-conscious as any royal nation. We revere our ex-presidents, even those we trashed while they were in office. In fact, the less we liked 'em in office the more we come to like them out. Jimmy Carter is a perfect example. So is Herbert Hoover.
I thought of Hoover last week because of something Jimmy did during his visit to the White House. (Trivia alert! Trivia alert!)
Jimmy and George and Gerald Ford were among many guests who stood and listened to President Clinton laud the North American Free Trade Agreement in White House ceremonies the morning after the sleep-in. (Ford had declined an invitation to spend the night in the White House, preferring a nearby hotel.) Clinton spoke on and on and on and on. The senior citizen ex-presidents began to get a little achy in the knees. So Jimmy called for chairs.
Now, in the spring of 1932, Hoover invited the nation's governors to a White House reception. The Depression was in full fury. Hoover was being blamed, and it was widely assumed that he would be a pushover in November for the Democratic nominee. It was widely assumed that that would be New York Gov. Franklin D. Roosevelt.
FDR and Eleanor arrived at the reception, where all guests were expected to stand till the president arrived. No problem for the able bodied, but FDR had polio. To stand, he had to lock heavy, uncomfortable leg braces and lean on a cane.
Hoover was about a half hour late. Eleanor thought it was a deliberate "endurance test" subjecting her husband to "an ordeal," as she later put it in her autobiography. Two of FDR's aides later wrote that Hoover's action led FDR to attack Hoover more personally in the campaign to come.
I have no idea whether Hoover subjected FDR to an ordeal on purpose. I do know FDR could have sat down if he wanted to. He was twice offered a chair. He didn't accept because, as Eleanor wrote, "he thought if he showed any weakness someone might make an adverse political story of it." That he had polio was generally known, but that he was so physically disabled by it was not.