American presidents are like X-Men -- there's a ridiculous number of them, and most of their backstories are either too weird or too boring to retain your interest. That's why we cling to certain well-known tales that help us easily label and categorize our presidents. For instance, we all know that Teddy Roosevelt was a cowboy badass, George Washington was a great general, and Andrew Jackson was frequently forced to take time off to battle the Juggernaut.
There's only one problem with these little nuggets of awesome: Not nearly all of them are true. For instance, have you heard the one where ...
#5. Nixon Won the Radio Debate, but Kennedy Won on Television
The 1960 presidential debates between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy were the first to be broadcast on television. This ended up playing a pretty big role in deciding the election: While the wily statesman Nixon was the better orator on the radio, the young, handsome, photogenic Kennedy easily beat his sweaty, scruffy opponent on TV, which was one of the key moments on his road to the presidency. It's a useful story that simultaneously manages to inspire and confirm our fears about the triumph of image over substance.
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In a perfect, rational world, we'd choose Nixon every time.
There's really no evidence that things went like this. The TV debate legend comes from a single poll by a market research firm and is so full of holes that it's like someone's been machine-gunning a colander. The survey's radio part was based on just 282 radio listeners, only 172 of whom bothered to actually answer it. Those numbers are part of a very important statistical subset known as "way the hell not enough." Seriously, hand anyone with a touch of political knowledge a survey of 172 random people and tell them it represents the national opinion. See how it goes, we'll wait.
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Why, it'd be as bad as picking the president by polling 172 corn farmers.
This ridiculously inadequate "survey" was the only one that claimed to distinguish between TV and radio owners. In general, the surveys mostly found that Kennedy had won, but that was less to do with his image and more to do with the fact that he, you know, performed much better in the debate than Nixon. You don't have to trust our word -- here's a video:
If you watched that clip, you'll notice that Kennedy looked more like a murder doll from some terrible episode of The Twilight Zone than a suave hunk. But he talks a very good game, and Tricky Dick is clearly a bit overwhelmed.
So if the survey is bullshit -- and we cannot emphasize enough that it probably is -- then how did the story become so widely accepted? Well, like we said earlier, it's a very useful story. Nixon's supporters got to blame their defeat on something other than their candidate being a corruption-mired misanthrope, academics got to drone on about the media's skewing influence on politics, and repressed '60s ladies got something to ogle in the family room.
#4. William Howard Taft Got Stuck in the White House Bathtub
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In popular culture, there is precisely one notable feature that kept William Howard Taft from joining the likes of Millard Fillmore and James Polk in the pantheon of forgotten presidents. Never mind the civil service reforms or the introduction of the corporate income tax -- dude was husky!
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Post-presidency, clothes no longer fit him, so he and his friends just wore dressing gowns.
In fact, Taft was so fat that he once got stuck in the White House bathtub! They had to grease him up with butter and get four strong men to pull him out! He probably tried to eat the butter! Then the men! Hilarious!
It's true that Taft was a heavy guy. However, that doesn't mean he was an idiot. Seriously, what kind of bizarro body dysmorphia would someone need to have to wedge himself into a bathtub so tightly that it took four men to wrench him free? And how would that person even manage to get stuck when his bathtub looked like this?
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If he got stuck with three other men, the story probably would have mentioned that.
He'd have to be shaped like a giant Twinkie. No, Taft was well aware of his impressive girth, which is why he had a custom extra-large bathtub installed in the White House as soon as he took office. When he was forced to bathe elsewhere -- during official trips and whatnot -- he developed a fiendishly cunning plan to prevent himself from getting stuck: He took showers.
So how did the story start? There are a few theories. First, like all great celebrity anecdotes, it may have begun with a broke ex-employee who had a book to sell. Irwin "Ike" Hoover was a former White House usher whose book -- published in 1934, after Taft was dead -- made all sorts of salacious allegations about the presidents he'd served under, a version of the bathtub story among them. But then he may have just been repeating what he'd already heard from supporters of Teddy Roosevelt. See, "Big Bill" Taft was locked in mortal political combat with Roosevelt for a time, and the latter's supporters did their level best to mock Taft's weight, leading to speculations that the story may have started there and then. We're relatively certain that Roosevelt himself wasn't behind the rumors, though: We suspect that his particular spin on political revenge would have included a lot less mincing gossip and far more projectile weapons and moose charges.
#3. JFK's Dad Was a Bootlegger
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Jay-Z wouldn't lie to us: Everyone knows Joe Kennedy, patriarch of the Kennedy clan, was a bootlegger during Prohibition, and the family fortune was more or less founded on his illegal gains.
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That's why the whole family has suffered under a tipsy curse.
This is probably the most pervasive story on this list, yet there is no evidence for it whatsoever. In fact, it would have been pretty strange if Joe Kennedy, who was already an immensely wealthy Hollywood mogul and investor when Prohibition began, had decided to risk it all for his undying love of gettin' sloppy. Teddy, maybe -- but not Joe.
In fact, historians have found little evidence supporting the rumors (save for Joe stockpiling a good amount of whiskey just before alcohol became illegal. But then, wouldn't you?). During the 1930s, Joe Kennedy was nominated for a number of federal positions, all of which required a thorough background check -- no evidence of involvement in bootlegging was ever found. Not even in the 1940s, when he was widely hated as a Nazi sympathizer (why isn't that the story people remember?), did anybody even suggest that he was involved in bootlegging. In the 1950s, President Eisenhower had the FBI investigate all aspects of Kennedy's life, but not even his most bitter enemies accused him of smuggling alcohol. You'd assume someone would at least have mentioned it.
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The FBI kept a file about his ridiculous pants, but no, nothing on bootlegging.
The story seems to stem from Kennedy's actions when it became clear that Prohibition was ending. He immediately obtained the import rights for several high-end gin brands and started bringing them into the country before the law was technically repealed. However, this was perfectly legal, as he did not actually sell any of the gin until Prohibition ended. The liquor was kept in sealed warehouses and monitored by customs. In the 1950s, the Chicago Tribune reported that Kennedy had imported booze before Prohibition ended, completely failing to mention the "while very much abiding by the law" aspect of the situation.
The story took off when JFK ran for president and really got out of hand after his assassination. Once the conspiracy theorists got their tin foil ball rolling, wild speculation about the Kennedy family's supposed connections to organized crime became big business. One writer even dug up Al Capone's 93-year-old former piano tuner, who confidently declared that Joe Kennedy had been invited to a spaghetti dinner at Capone's house to share some hilarious bootleggin' tales (no word on why Capone would have shared this information with a goddamn piano tuner). At that point, elderly mobsters like Frank Costello and Joe Bonanno smelled easy money and started releasing books about their supposed connection to Kennedy, and they were all swallowed as fact. Because if you can't trust the unsupported word of notorious criminals when money is on the line, then who can you trust?