Once, when U.S. President Martin Van Buren was receiving guests at a White House levee, Henry Clay sidled up to him and whispered that it must be pleasant to be surrounded by so many friends.
“Well,” said Van Buren cautiously, “the weather is very fine.”
— from The American Talleyrand: The Career and Contemporaries of Martin Van Buren, by Holmes Alexander (New York, 1935), p. 406.
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When Congress was discussing independence, according to a story Thomas Jefferson told a friend in his old age, meetings were held near a livery-stable, and the meeting hall was besieged by flies.
The delegates wore short breeches and silk stockings; while they talked they also busily lashed the flies from their legs with their handkerchiefs.
The flies were so vexatious, Jefferson said, that the delegates finally decided to sign the Declaration of Independence at once and get away from the place as quickly as possible.
Jefferson told the story “with much glee,” said the friend; he was amused by “the influence of the flies” on so momentous an event.
— from The Domestic Life of Thomas Jefferson by Sarah N. Robinson (New York, 1871), page 421 n.
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Ronald Reagan turned seventy in February 1981 and joked about his age in a speech at a Washington Press Club dinner.
“I know your organisation was founded by six Washington newspaperwomen in 1919,” he remarked; then, after a slight pause, added: “It seems like only yesterday.”
Middle age, he went on to say, “is when you’re faced with two temptations and you choose the one that will get you home at 9 o’clock.”
And, after quoting Thomas Jefferson’s advice not to worry about one’s age, he exclaimed: “And ever since he told me that, I stopped worrying.”
— “Reagan’s One-Liners,” New York Times, February 6, 1981, page A13.
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President Reagan was famous for his one-liners. Even in emergencies he preserved his good humour and toss off quip after quip to reassure those around him. An attempt on his life early in his Presidency left him as calm and unruffled as Theodore Roosevelt had been after a similar attack many years before.
Early in the afternoon of March 30, 1981, a deranged young loner pumped a fusillade of explosive bullets into the President, his press secretary and two law enforcement officers as they were coming out of the Washington-Hilton Hotel.
Reagan was rushed to the hospital with a serious chest wound, but when he was wheeled into the operating room he grinned and told the surgeon: “Please assure me that you are all Republicans!”
“Today,” responded one of the doctors, “we’re all good Republicans, Mr. President.”
A few hours after surgery the President wrote his doctors a note which parodied comedian W.C. Fields: “All in all, I’d rather be in Philadelphia.”
A little later hie sent another note from the intensive-care section to White House aides waiting outside: “Winston Churchill said ‘There’s no more exhilarating feeling than being shot at without result.'”
Two hours later came a third note: “If I had had this much attention in Hollywood, I’d have stayed there.”
— “Reagan Out of Surgery,” Fort Worth Star-Telegram, March 31, 1981, page 2a; “Cooler Reagan Visits with Agent,” ibid., April 5, 1981.
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By spring 1979, when Jimmy Carter visited New Hampshire, his administration was beginning to come under heavy criticism. When a newswoman in Portsmouth asked him whether his daughter Amy ever bragged about her father’s being President, Carter said, “No, she probably apologizes.”
— “He Can Catch Fire,” Time, CXIII (May 7, 1979), page 19.
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One time while Calvin Coolidge was president of the Massachusetts senate, two Senators got into an angry debate during which one told the other to go to hell. Furious, the latter called on Coolidge to do something about it.
“I’ve looked up the law, Senator,” Coolidge told him, “and you don’t have to go there.”
— from Meet Calvin Coolidge by Edward C. Lathem (Brattleboro, Vt., 1960), page 7.