5 Presidents Who Were Total Badasses in Their Youth
We tend to think of American presidents as leading straight-laced, boring lives before their time as commander-in-chief, because with a handful of notable exceptions, the office of the president has been reserved for people whose lives consisted of law school and then several decades in politics.
But as it turns out, many presidents spent their younger years going on Hollywood-worthy adventures through history, doling out Old West-style justice and opening casino bars in the South Pacific.
Young Jimmy Carter Was Lowered into a Malfunctioning Nuclear Reactor
You may only know Jimmy Carter as the goofy-looking president who presided over a particularly depressing era in America when everyone was just waiting for the shitty 1970s to end. But back in 1952, Carter was a 28-year-old Navy lieutenant doing something that could absolutely be the premise of a taut action movie that today would almost certainly star Mark Wahlberg: A nuclear reactor was on the verge of meltdown, and one man would have to lead a team into the heart of the disaster before time ran out.
His name was James Earl Carter. Of course he was an action hero.
And so young Jimmy Carter led a containment team of 24 men into the Chalk River Laboratories nuclear research facility near Ottawa, Canada, after a reactor accident released 4,500 tons of radioactive water into the building's basement (nuclear safety manuals in the 1950s were apparently just single issues of The Uncanny X-Men).
Carter divided his team (himself included) into rotating 90-second shifts spent conducting cleanup and repairs directly next to the overheating reactor while wearing protective gear with the same anti-radioactivity rating as a Huckleberry Hound Halloween costume. It was essentially like that sequence in K-19: The Widowmaker wherein Peter Sarsgaard and his team take turns putting on flimsy plastic coveralls to get boiled alive by waves of white-hot atomic fire pouring out of a malfunctioning submarine core. And yes, we said the shifts were 90 seconds long -- that was the longest a human body could tolerate the conditions (and that turned out to be grossly unsafe, based on what we know now).
The plant bosses knew it then too, but they didn't tell Jimmy.
To track their progress, Carter's team built a life-size replica of the damaged reactor on a nearby tennis court where each team member could practice the next step of repairs, because it wouldn't do for someone to go all the way down into the radioactive death basement and then forget what the hell it was they came there to hammer for 90 seconds. Carter and his team might spend an entire trip tightening a single bolt before scurrying back upstairs to rinse off all the science poison.
Carter would later write that he "absorbed a year's maximum allowance of radiation in one minute and 29 seconds," and that his team's exposure was about a thousand times greater than any human being would be allowed today. Carter soaked up so much atom juice that for the six months following the cleanup he had radioactive urine. That's right -- the man peed radiation, which you may recognize as an episode of The Incredible Hulk that we've always wanted to see.
Sheriff Grover Cleveland Cleaned Up New York by Personally Executing Felons
Before he earned the dubious distinction of being the only American president to have a Muppet named after him, Grover Cleveland was elected sheriff of Erie County, New York, on a strong platform of vowing to fix up the county's notoriously crime-ridden Canal District. The nearby Ohio River attracted hordes of sailors and transients, who were encouraged by the area's staggering 673 local saloons to make Canal District as close to Sweeney Todd's London as they possibly could. Erie County also had more prisoners per capita than any other county jail in the state of New York, so installing Grover Cleveland as sheriff was presumably the last resort before flying Kurt Russell in on a futuristic hang glider to restore order.
Pictured: the county's courthouse brothel thunderdome.
Cleveland took a hands-on approach to his time as sheriff, so much so that, instead of hiring a contract executioner, which was apparently a job that people put together a resume and applied for, Cleveland personally carried out the hangings of two criminals. He believed it was his "moral responsibility" to perform the executions, rather than forcing someone else to do it for him. It also didn't hurt that strangle-breaking people's necks himself wound up saving his district a little bit of money.
Even in light of this powerful evidence to the contrary, Cleveland was actually the least insane person in regard to executions in Erie County. Before he took office, the Buffalo death penalty scene had enjoyed a "circus atmosphere," with people gathering together on nearby rooftops to enjoy the spectacle of a fellow human being spasming out his last horrifying moments of life while dangling from the end of a rope like a cat toy. Cleveland, on the other hand, put up canvas sheets to block the view of any onlookers and give the condemned a small amount of decency before dropping them through a trap door into oblivion.
So no one could watch. Other than Cleveland, the lucky son of a gun.
After departing the office of sheriff, Cleveland's rivals attempted to thwart his burgeoning political career by dubbing him "the Buffalo Hangman." Instead, Cleveland kept winning elections all the way up to the presidency, because, let's face it, that is an awesome nickname.
Young Richard Nixon Opened a Casino Bar in the South Pacific During World War II
When Richard Nixon was in his late teens, he worked at a carnival in Prescott, Arizona, running a less than legal gambling game called the wheel of fortune, where participants could pay to spin a wheel for real cash prizes. But where most folks grow out of that kind of teenage mischief once they reach adulthood, Nixon would ride his love of illicit gambling right to the Oval Office. When he joined the American war effort in his 20s, he brought his love of gambling with him to the South Pacific, where he set up his own bar to hone his poker skills.
Thus earning him his famous nickname, "Sneaky Ricky."
We have no idea how Nixon managed to find the time to construct and operate an island casino bar, because we're reasonably sure that enlisting in the Navy in World War II meant the majority of your time would be spent hunting Japanese submarines and not living out the plotline of a 1960s war sitcom. Either way, Nixon was clearly already in the habit of doing whatever the hell he wanted and didn't give one whistling dolphin anus what anyone else thought.
To give you an example, he was so committed to his poker games that he turned down an invitation to have dinner with Charles Lindbergh when the famous hero pilot/racist stopped by the island because it overlapped with one of his nightly money-winning contests. Winning $50 from a bunch of drunken sailors was more important to Richard Nixon than meeting one of the most famous people in the world, because he was Richard goddamned Nixon and there was gambling money to be made. Keep in mind, he was doing this all in a bar he had opened himself at age 29 on an island in the South Pacific during the biggest global war in history. We really can't stress that enough.
Something about the island made people stop fighting and just chill.
So Nixon was like Paul Newman in The Hustler, if that movie had been about a satchel-faced poker player instead of a handsome pool shark. He made so much money from his nightly winnings (possibly as much as $10,000) that he was able to use them to finance a huge chunk of his first congressional campaign, which got him on the path to the White House.
Abraham Lincoln Led a Bumbling Backwoods Militia (and Wrestled Them)
Before he was given the task of crushing the Southern rebellion, Abraham Lincoln volunteered to help crush a Native American rebellion back when he was 23, during what was called the Black Hawk War. It took place in 1832 after a group of Native Americans crossed the Mississippi River into Illinois to reclaim their land from white settlers and had almost nothing to do with the professional hockey team of the same name.
It was named after the Kickapoo twin-engine chopper.
In response, the government scrambled to put a militia force together, and Honest Abe was voted company commander of his band of volunteer soldiers. Although Lincoln was proud of being entrusted with this command, it was reported by the men that the appeal of electing him as their officer was that they were able to do whatever they wanted. Serving under Abraham Lincoln was apparently less like Full Metal Jacket and more like Our Gang and/or The Goonies.
For example, like most modern-day rural militias, Lincoln's company never saw actual combat. But they did spend plenty of time drinking all of their whiskey supplies, which was something they used to issue to soldiers because conventional wisdom has worn many strange masks over the centuries. When Lincoln's troops ran out of their own booze, they teamed up with a neighboring company to use tomahawks and buckets to raid the officers' stockpile of wine and brandy.
When Abe awoke, he discovered that someone had shaved his mustache.
Lincoln tried to call his men into formation the next morning, but they were nestled peacefully beneath a hazy cloud of sleepy booze farts and didn't manage to crawl out of bed until after 10 o'clock, by which time the rest of the militia companies had already left them far behind. Lincoln's troops managed to march about 2 miles before simply giving up and going back to sleep to cast off the rest of their hangovers. Lincoln was arrested and forced carry a wooden sword for two days as punishment, because old-timey justice was occasionally hilarious.
Despite the fact that his men made almost no effort to listen to anything he said, Lincoln still had a blast being a militia captain because he got to engage in impromptu wrestling matches with the other soldiers. And if there was one thing Abraham Lincoln loved, it was kicking people's asses. He gained a reputation as the best wrestler in the army, because apparently they just wrestled all the time instead of actually trying to quell the Indian rebellion they had been mustered together to pacify. Abe lost only one of his completely insane wrestling matches, to a man named Thompson, a soldier from a different company whom he battled for the right to choose the best camping spot, according to an actual historical document containing the sentence, "At last the man got the crotch lock on Mr. Lincoln."
College Student James Monroe Ransacked the Governor's House
When 16-year-old James Monroe was attending the College of William and Mary in 1775, one of the most popular extracurricular activities for the young student body was to harass the local British governor in the name of the impending American Revolution. As opposed to the type of civil disobedience that currently takes place at William and Mary (which consists mostly of purchasing licensed merchandise from a movie by the Wachowskis and reblogging things), Monroe and his buddies would march around on the college green deliberately trying to provoke the stationed British soldiers.
They'd dance beside the signs reading "Keep off the grass."
And because there were no panty raids in 1775 (largely due to the fact that women were forbidden by law to come anywhere near an institution of higher learning), Monroe led his colonial Animal House on a raid of the next best thing -- an enormous stockpile of weapons from the governor's mansion.
See, the colonies were scant months away from full-blown war with England, and tensions were pretty high. So the Royal Governor of the Colony of Virginia, Lord Dunmore, thought the best way to keep the peace in the little slice of stolen Powhatan land the crown had tasked him to protect was to keep a goddamned arsenal on display in the Governor's Palace at all times. This seems to suggest that Lord Dunmore's appointment was largely political, and not at all related to any demonstrable ability to govern things.
He thought the guns were pretty.
Anyway, when the militia fighting started to get serious, Lord Dunmore packed his royal bags and got the hell out of town, abandoning his mansion with everything still left inside (although he presumably stopped at a few local taverns to spread the word that it was haunted in order to keep it safe from plundering colonists). Monroe saw his opportunity for the biggest college prank ever and raided the palace, loading up around 200 muskets, 300 swords, and 18 pistols that were delivered directly to the local militia.
Again, these were all weapons that Lord Dunmore just left behind in his house like stacks of old Pokemon cards (see "terrible governor," above). Monroe dropped out soon after to join the fighting and never did earn his degree, which didn't stop him from achieving the highest office in the land, in case you were wondering how little college matters (answer: not at all, if you are sufficiently ambitious and/or insane).
Related Reading: Did you know LBJ had a huge wang and slept with waaaay more women than JFK? It's true! Oh, and Andrew Jackson was a murderous lunatic. And guess what- Teddy Roosevelt kept a damn badger in the White House.