3 Supervillain-Worthy Origin Stories of Famous Presidents
Having spent the better part of a decade reading, talking, and writing about presidents, I've come to two conclusions: 1) I have way too much time on my hands and 2) presidents are freaking terrifying. I cover most of the insanity in my new book, How to Fight Presidents (which you can pre-order right now wherever books are sold), but if I'm being honest with myself, I'll never run out of things to say about presidents.
Even and especially the really crazy ones.
John Quincy Adams' History of Self-Torture
Let's not bullshit each other: The beginning and end of what most people know about John Quincy Adams is "Didn't Anthony Hopkins play him in a movie about slavery I sort of remember?"
While his contributions to democracy are huge and his overall career is impressive, JQA simply lacked the charisma of Washington, the sex appeal of Jefferson, and the intelligence or name-originality status of his father to warrant space in our collective memory. That early chunk of presidents was so full of superstars that Quincy doesn't even rank for most people. He's fairly easy to forget, as far as presidents go.
But as far as maniacs go? You better believe he makes the top 10.
The Supervillain Origin Story
Quincy was named man of the house at 8 years old while his father was away on business. That business, of course, was working behind the scenes on the future of America while the Revolutionary goddamn War was going on. Quincy watched battles from his front porch and wrote in his diary that he worried he might be "butchered in cold blood, or taken and carried ... as hostages by any foraging or marauding detachment of British soldiers." I don't know if there's an ideal age when it comes to the milestone of smelling blood on the wind and being confronted with your own mortality, but it's probably not 8.
Pictured: John Quincy Adams, age 8.
It wasn't just the early exposure to violence that made Quincy's life play out like the IKEA instruction manual for a terrifying sociopath. Quincy grew up in the shadow of his brilliant and humorless father, who just so happened to be the second president of the United States, which inspired in Quincy his drive and intense quest for perfection in the pursuit of living up to his father's high expectations. His dad was president, after all, so anything less than president simply wouldn't be good enough.
But he did eventually become president, so he should feel accomplished, right? Wrong. At 65, even though he'd been private secretary to the American minister to Russia, secretary at the Treaty of Paris, the president, and a congressman, he confessed to his diary that his "whole life [had] been a succession of disappointments. I can scarcely recollect a single instance of success to anything that I ever undertook." Those are the words of a self-hating crazy man, and like all self-hating crazy men, Quincy had a pretty bizarre way of punishing himself when he fell short of perfect: He beat the shit out of himself.
The cane wasn't for walking.
Yep, just like Silas in The Da Vinci Code, who whipped himself, Quincy would regularly punish his body to atone for his failures. This involved exercising for five hours every day, not to stay in shape, but to torture himself. He would also soak himself in ice-cold baths and scrape his body up with a horsehair mitten, which hurt like hell.
Also, as we've previously mentioned, Quincy tried to fund an expedition to the center of the Earth because he believed it was hollow and full of mole people. I'm not saying he would have used the center of the Earth as a supervillain lair, complete with an army of mole henchmen, but ... I mean, yeah, that's what he would have done with it, right?
And we wouldn't have had the Fantastic Four to save our asses.
Calvin Coolidge Is Like That Psycho from Psycho
If the nickname "Silent Cal" hadn't already been taken up by the notoriously quiet former president, it would absolutely be perfect for some kind of campground-stalking, machete-wielding serial killer, the kind of mythic boogeyman that kids swap stories about around a campfire. Instead, we used the nickname on a politician who didn't talk a lot and didn't kill any unsuspecting teenagers on a lake trip.
He wore a catcher's mask, since hockey ones hadn't been invented yet.
The Supervillain Origin Story
Like John Quincy Adams, Coolidge was instructed early on not to make mistakes and to never settle for anything less than perfection. To Coolidge's credit, he did excel in a lot of fields as a kid. Maybe that's because he wanted to make his parents proud, or maybe, just maybe, it's because his grandma would lock him in an empty, dark, cobweb-filled attic whenever he made a mistake (being late for school, for example). Coolidge would be banished to the dark, cold attic and kept there. For hours.
He had to be raised by his grandmother because his father was away on business and his mother died when he was a child. And then a few years later, his sister died. And then years after that, when he was president, his son, Calvin Jr., died in a freak tennis accident. Growing up in a dark attic and being surrounded on all sides by death changes a man. After his son died, Coolidge refused to have any visitors to the White House except other young boys, which he requested to see all the time. He just sat around welcoming wave after wave of surrogate Calvin Juniors. You know, like a profoundly sad or crazy person.
"We're going to have so much fun, little Calvin."
"My name's Jimmy."
"Not anymore, legally. I'm president."
When he wasn't hanging out with surrogates, he was terrifying his staff. According to some White House employees, Coolidge kept his staff "in a constant state of anxiety" and was capable of "volcanic eruptions of temper." I would question the logic behind calling a guy who has volcanic eruptions of temper "silent," but I'm honestly too terrified of the man to bring it up.
Grover Cleveland's Ridiculous Cancer Heist
Part of me was tempted to never elaborate on this entry. To just type "Grover Cleveland's Ridiculous Cancer Heist" and leave it hanging there, unexplained, and let your imaginations run wild. Is he stealing cancer? What's he going to do with all that cancer? Or is he stealing from cancer? If you want, you can skip this entry and let your brain fill in the blanks with whatever madness you can concoct, but if anyone wants to know the insane truth ...
The Supervillain Origin Story
[I'm cheating, because this isn't technically an origin story, but it does fall under the category of supervillain-esque schemes, so it felt like a good fit.]
Grover Cleveland was a man who held himself to a high moral standard all his life (his last words were "I have tried so hard to do right"), which is why I was pretty surprised to discover that one of the most shocking displays of presidential deception took place on his watch. While president, a cancerous tumor was discovered in Cleveland's mouth. Cleveland knew that he needed to get the tumor removed, but he also knew that news of the tumor would make him (and by extension America) seem weak, and he was worried that this news might tank the national economy. So this man, who built his career around the image of incorruptibility and goodness, staged a secret medical procedure, like an Ocean's Eleven heist, but with doctors and mounds of cancer instead of piles of money and Matt Damon.
And with the raw sexuality of Clooney and Pitt combined.
President Cleveland assembled a small team of specialists and scheduled a top-secret surgery, and, to make sure the media didn't catch wind of the whole procedure, arranged to have the surgery take place on a fucking boat. He did it over Fourth of July weekend, when people could assume he was just enjoying a trip with his family. In reality, most of his family didn't know about the surgery or the cancer. Only Cleveland's wife and the small team of doctors knew. Even his vice president was kept in the dark.
On July 1, 1893, President Cleveland was sedated by nitrous oxide, strapped into a chair anchored to the mast of a ship in the middle of the ocean, and given major surgery. (It's been a while since I cracked open a medical textbook, and doctors reading along at home can confirm in the comments, but I'm almost certain that performing major surgery at sea was frowned upon, even then.) The doctors made all of their incisions inside Cleveland's mouth to make sure they wouldn't leave a visible scar and removed the cancer. Which is good, because if they'd slipped or run into some nasty waves and accidentally killed the president, I literally have no idea how they could possibly explain that to anyone.
"What can I say? The president is a really, really bad fisherman."
So far in the story, it could be argued that Cleveland isn't doing anything evil. Is he sneaky? Sure, but he did what he did to protect America and to prevent anyone from freaking out. But it's the epilogue that takes this story from "crazy plan" to "evil scheme" territory. One of the dentists who helped perform the procedure went public with the story as soon as it was clear that Cleveland was going to be fine. He believed that, since the danger had passed, there was no reason to keep the surgery a secret anymore. When he came forward, however, the White House aggressively and categorically denied his claims. The dentist was ridiculed, and when he eventually died, his reputation was that of a crazy liar. Apparently, President Cleveland's way of saying "Hey, thanks for performing my secret and illegal surgery" sounds a whole lot like "You're a FUCKING LIAR I'VE NEVER EVEN HEARD OF YOU."
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