The tradition of presidents introducing guests at the State of the Union address and telling homey / heartwarming / inspirational stories about them is young in the grand scheme of American history. The first instance was in 1982 and it quickly became a bulwark of the Cheap Political Theater repertoire for the men in the White House. And there is a name for the phenomenon: a guest referenced by the president during the address is called a "Lenny Skutnik." Why? Well I'm glad you asked.

On January 13, 1982, just a week before the SOTU address, Washington D.C. was experiencing one of its worst winter storms in recent memory. A 737 from now-defunct Air Florida prepared to take off in 20 F and moderate to heavy snowfall. After being de-iced, delays caused the plane to wait for 49 minutes on the apron before being cleared for takeoff. Already running late, the pilots chose to take off rather than returning to apply another de-icing spray. Several other errors of inexperience with flying in snow (Air Florida, after all) including the failure to activate the integral engine de-icing system resulted in the plane attempting to take off with substantially less thrust than the instruments indicated. Imagine your speedometer reading 65 but your actual speed barely hitting 40 thanks to a half ton layer of ice.

The engines wheezed and choked with ice as the plane barely made it off the ground. Almost immediately it lost lift. It rapidly descended into the frozen solid Potomac River, striking the 14th Street bridge (killing four drivers in traffic bound cars) and smashing into the ice. It sank almost immediately. Some passengers are presumed to have survived the crash, as the plane barely got off the ground, but with heavy winter clothing and subzero water temperatures most of them never had a chance. As horrified crowds looked on a small number of flailing human forms appeared on the surface of the water. But without immediate rescue, the cold water would take them too.

A US Park Police helicopter was on it almost immediately, flying dangerously low over the water to drop a line to six survivors. One passenger, later identified as Arland Williams, Jr., passed the lifeline to other people three separate times. He did not survive. One woman he tried to help was too weak from hypothermia to hold the line. She was sinking in full view of hundreds of freezing onlookers.

Heroism called. Lenny Skutnik, a Mississippian working for the Congressional Budget Office, accepted the charges.

He took off his coat and boots and launched himself into the water. He broke his foot striking a chunk of ice, but fortunately he was too frozen to notice it. He somehow dragged the woman to the shore. She was the last survivor of Flight 90 and Martin "Lenny" Skutnik became a national hero overnight. President Reagan invited him to the address and said:

In the midst of a terrible tragedy on the Potomac, we saw again the spirit of American heroism at its finest – the heroism of dedicated rescue workers saving crash victims from icy waters. And we saw the heroism of one of our young Government employees, Lenny Skutnik, who, when he saw a woman lose her grip on the helicopter line, dived into the water and dragged her to safety.

It was the last time a Republican praised someone who worked for the government.

74 of 79 passengers and crew on Flight 90 died, as did 4 people on the bridge. Skutnik, who also received the Coast Guard Lifesaving Medal and a thousand other awards, retired in 2010 after 31 years of service at the CBO. Air Florida filed for bankruptcy two years later. Its market niche was later filled by a startup called ValuJet.



As inane as the manufactured controversy over Obama's constitutional eligibility to serve as president might be, it does give me a rare opportunity to dust off the "Presidential Trivia" tag and take a walk through some obscure history. Whee!

Much of what has been said about Obama over the past three years bears an eerie resemblance to the case of Chester A. Arthur, who battled doubts about his eligibility and citizenship throughout his career on the national stage. What is certain is that Arthur's father William was a British citizen in 1829 when Chester was born. If, as many totally-not-racist birthers are suddenly claiming this week, having a non-citizen parent negates natural born citizenship, then Arthur indisputably was ineligible to serve (William Arthur was naturalized in 1843). Beyond the question of his father's citizenship, it was also alleged that Arthur was born in Canada. While generally believed to be false, the claim is at least plausible. William Arthur owned a farm 15 miles north of the Vermont-Ontario border. And Chester's birthplace was given as Fairfield, VT, which is within maple syrup-spitting distance of the Canadian border. Does any evidence prove the claim that Arthur was born in Canada? No. Is it plausible, given his father's Canadian property and the fact that Fairfield is practically in Canada? Sure. The combination of A) a non-citizen father and B) a disputed birthplace make Chester Alan the likely choice as the president with the most complicated or ambiguous citizenship status.

Several men who ran for president but failed to win would have raised very interesting questions regarding eligibility. Charles Evans Hughes, who lost to Woodrow Wilson in 1916, was born a dual citizen on account of a British father and British laws that automatically conferred citizenship at birth despite the fact that Hughes was born in New York. While his status as a person born in the U.S. is beyond doubt, Hughes' election would have raised the complex question of whether someone born into dual nationality can be "natural born" for the purposes of the Article II requirements. George Romney (yes, Mitt's dad) ran in 1968 despite being born in Mexico in 1907 to parents who had not set foot in the U.S. since 1886. However, his parents retained U.S. citizenship and never obtained Mexican citizenship, thus he would most likely have been eligible if the matter was litigated. Regardless it is not difficult to see how a case could be argued against him. Barry Goldwater and Herbert Hoover's VP, Charles Curtis, were born in AZ and KS, respectively, before either were granted statehood. Territorial residents had birthright citizenship in most cases, so this is little more than a historical curiosity.

What is particularly funny about the to-do over Obama's birth is that of the people running in 2008, he actually had the least complex citizenship status. John McCain was born in the unincorporated Panama Canal Zone territory, where upon birth an individual was a U.S. "national" but not a citizen (similar to territories like American Samoa or Guam today). His parents were both citizens and he was born on a military base where they were stationed, so the circumstances strongly suggest that he was a naturally born citizen rather than a foreign national born to people who resided (in any permanent sense) in a foreign country. However, it was only a law passed in 1937 that retroactively declared everyone born in the Canal Zone after 1904 a natural born citizen. Despite all the fuss, most interpretations of USC Title 8, 1401 would grant that McCain met the criteria regardless of the retroactive law of 1937 because his parents were both U.S. citizens – and on an active duty military deployment.

Oh, and of course none of the first five presidents were technically eligible since they were British citizens at birth, one and all. But what's a grandfather clause or two among friends?


Among other more obvious historical firsts President Obama is the first president to be driven around in a totally custom-made car. The security and communications requirements have become so extensive – a negative pressure system for chemical attacks, IED-proof armor on the doors, a mine-proof underbelly, Level IV bullet resistant glass, etc. – that the body and frame of a normal limousine could no longer bear the added weight. Customizing a Lincoln Town Car or Cadillac Fleetwood is no longer sufficient, so the current Presidential State Car was built from the ground up. "Car" is a wild misnomer, as "The Beast" (as the Secret Service calls the 12,000-pound vehicle) is more tank than car. While the styling cues and badging mark the car as a Cadillac, the resemblance is only superficial.

Built on the platform of the GMC Topkick – a commercial vehicle used as a platform for fire trucks, ambulances, and dump trucks – the PSC has eight inches of titanium armor in the doors, bulletproof glass nearly a foot thick, and generally looks more like a bunker than a car as this Life Magazine photo illustrates:

The exterior bodywork had to be designed carefully so that the vehicle could fit inside a C-17 Globemaster, which, for the record, is really fucking big. The President is not allowed by the Secret Service to be transported in vehicles provided by other nations, which is logical given that he often ends up in dodgy places. Thus wherever he goes, the car goes. The engine is classified but is known to be a very large diesel, which breaks with the tradition of all previous presidential carriages. It also indicates that the Secret Service is minimally concerned about high speed (although I'm sure it's plenty fast) and very concerned that the PSC is able to batter its way through barricades, climb small obstacles, and push other vehicles out of the way. The high-torque diesel is ideal for all three applications.

It is a sad commentary on the current state of the country and of the world that the president must be trucked around in what amounts to a impenetrable bomb shelter on wheels, but that is where we are at in 2010. It is not where we have always been – although in fairness, a couple of assassinated presidents might have benefited from protection of this kind.

The first president to ride in an automobile was William McKinley, although it was a brief novelty ride in something considered far less reliable than a horse in 1900. The first to use on a semi-regular basis a car purchased by the Federal government for the president was McKinley's successor, Teddy Roosevelt. The car was a steam-powered (!!!) Stanley. Hey, if Robert Fulton's brainchild was good enough for a locomotive, surely it belonged in automobiles as well. TR's successor William H. Taft was the first to own a personal vehicle; he squeezed his corpulent hide into this sweet-ass White Model M Steamer:

The first vehicles that indicated the realization that the president required customized vehicles was unsurprisingly FDR, who received two massive Cadillac convertibles in 1938. They accommodated his physical needs and made some basic security concessions as well. This was upgraded to the first vehicle specifically customized on order from the White House, the "Sunshine Special" V12 Lincoln convertible procured in 1939. This is after he already survived one assassination attempt in an open-topped car. Smart.

Post-War presidents had a succession of opulent Lincoln convertibles, none of which, being convertibles, offered much in the way of upgraded security. Communications, at least the wireless kind, were so rudimentary that there wasn't much to put in a car at the time, so the presidential cars were essentially just really nice cars. Kennedy's soon-to-be infamous Lincoln – a landaulet, a strange convertible-limousine hybrid – featured telephones based on two-way radio technology, which was quite advanced for 1960. This photo clearly shows the bizarrely placed "jump seats" in which Governor Connolly sat during the assassination in 1963.

After that unpleasantness, the Secret Service started to realize that convertibles, even with the top up, were a horrible idea. In 1969 the White House finally received a bulletproof and armored Lincoln limousine which was used by Nixon, Ford, Carter, and Reagan – including the latter's assassination attempt in 1981. Reagan switched back to Cadillacs in 1983, although I can't locate information about why. There may be a reason or it may mean nothing in particular. But his new limo was enclosed and heavily armored. Armor upgrades in the 1989 Lincoln delivered to George H. Bush necessitated a transplanted Ford Truck V8, the first indication that the armor requirements of the presidential limo were beginning to tax the limits of standard car designs. Clinton received a Cadillac Fleetwood-based limo in 1993 and his successor took possession of the last limo based on a "normal" car in 2005: a Cadillac DTS-based limo which is still used as a backup by the current president. The Secret Service reportedly was unhappy with the performance and structural integrity of the Bush DTS, as the amount of equipment added during customization badly strained the passenger car underpinnings of the vehicle.

It would be nice if President Obama and his successors could hop in a convertible and wave to parade crowds, but it appears that those days are over. On the bright side, however, it would take a tactical nuclear strike to put a scratch on the passenger compartment of the new Presidential State Car. And there's probably some classified piece of security equipment to protect it from that too.


It has been ages since I've done Obscure Presidential Trivia Friday, although half a year is barely enough time to get over the mind-blowing realization that the 10th President, John Tyler, has two living grandsons. Let's talk about preserving presidents for posterity. Not by freezing their severed heads a la Ted Williams or Lenin-style embalming – through media.

Our first six Presidents are remembered only as oil paintings. Thus we are unable to imagine Washington or Madison doing anything but standing bolt-upright in starched pantaloons, one hand gripping a lapel and the other outstretched in the classic "See this? This means some fuckin' oratory is about to happen" pose. Given the tendency of people who painted the wealthy and powerful to…exercise a good deal of tact, our Founders were probably considerably uglier than we realize. History has a way of making people hotter. Compare this 1923 Silver Certificate featuring Lincoln to a modern $5 featuring Stud Lincoln.

So portrait artists were probably hiding Monroe's wrinkles, Washington's scars, and Jefferson's raging herpes sores. The first President (chronologically) to be photographed was the 6th, John Quincy Adams, who sat for this daguerreotype in 1843. He was photographed once more in 1847. Ornery looking SOB, wasn't he? The first President to be photographed while in office was John Tyler, whose place in trivia is considerably more prominent than in history.

Fast forward a few decades to the next great leaps forward in media technology. Grover Cleveland is the first President chronologically to appear on motion picture film, although ironically he did not do so on two non-consecutive occasions. Cleveland appears in the following film of the inauguration of William McKinley, the first sitting President one can view on YouTube:

The film was silent, of course, and legend has it that Edison himself operated the camera for it. One of Edison's inventions, wax cylinder recording, captured the voices of Presidents as early as Benjamin Harrison in 1892. Michigan State's Vincent Voice Library has thousands of rare, old sound recordings like this, although many of the more notable historical figures have migrated to YouTube. I love their collection; it teaches us, among other things, that William McKinley spoke with a comically affected upper-class accent and Calvin Coolidge sounded like a duck (as evidenced by the first Presidental film with sound). Coolidge was also the first President to give a speech broadcast on radio.

Herbert Hoover was on TV. No, seriously, and look at the size of that noggin!

HH lived to be more than 90, and thus he appeared on live TV at the 1960 GOP Convention. Truman was the first to appear on TV while in office, although by 1950 the public had gotten used to seeing newsreel footage of FDR and TV wasn't much of a leap forward.

The question of the first internet President is disputed, not that anyone's losing sleep over it. Presidents began sending coded electronic messages in the 1960s over the military precursors to the civilian internet. Reagan supposedly sent the first message that was readable on a monitor as opposed to printing out like a fax machine, but undoubtedly the first President to use the internet as we understand it was Bill Clinton in 1993. He sent the first Presidential email and undoubtedly cranked up top secret internet technology available only to the highest levels of government in 1993 – the 56k dial-up modem, I believe – and downloaded pictures of obese hillbilly women.

I'm not sure where Presidents can go from here and still break new ground, since I believe the next step up from existing technology involves teleportation. But when it happens, I'll be sure to make a note of it. And in case you were wondering, Cleveland installed the first telephone in the White House in 1892 and insisted – people, when Grover Cleveland insist on doing something you let him do it – on answering it himself. Which always amused the hell out of me, especially given that there were about 9 telephones in the United States at the time. "Hello, J.P.? This is Grover. Let's crank call Andrew Carnegie."**

** May not be an actual quote


Everyone seemed to like Obscure Presidential Trivia a few Fridays ago and I have little doubt that there is more amusement to be had along those lines. For instance, how much do you really know about the illustrious history of the Vice-Presidency and the parade of losers who have occupied it for the past 230 years?

Former VP Thomas Marshall (1912-1920) of Indiana once was asked why his state produced so many VPs; counting Dan Quayle, the Hoosier State has now produced five. His response was that "Indiana produces the finest second-rate men" in the nation and is thus a breeding ground for VPs. He's not wrong, as the office has been filled by second-rate imitations of statesmen more often than not for more than two centuries. That is, when it was filled.

The fundamental problem of the Vice-Presidency is…well, there are a couple. First, it is historically a political graveyard. The idea of the VP as a future Presidential candidate in training is a recent one. Second, there's absolutely nothing to do. If you're the kind of lazy, unmotivated politico who thinks that going to the state funerals of Eastern European prime ministers is a dream job, then the VP is awesome. Such an uninspired attitude should – but doesn't – disqualify one from being a heartbeat away from the White House. Thus we see the fundamental dilemma of the office; it is simultaneously very important and utterly irrelevant. To wit, the VP might be called upon to command the nation in a world war at a moment's notice, a la Truman, yet the office didn't even have a Top Secret security clearance until Mondale insisted on it in 1978 (No, seriously).

So important was the office that it was not until the passage of the 25th Amendment in 1967 that we even bothered to replace the VP if he died or otherwise left the office vacant. James Madison, who killed off two VPs – George Clinton (no, not that one) and Elbridge Gerry (yes, that one) – spent almost his entire eight year tenure in the White House without a VP. Nobody noticed. The job was so irrelevant that in 1832 John C. Calhoun, VP under John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson, quit to go back into the Senate. Think about that. He just stood up one day and said "Fuck this. I want my old job back."**

"I am insane. Also, bored."

Some people get flowers, plaques, or gold watches when they retire. William King got the Vice-Presidency as a thank-you gift for his many years of service in government. In 1852 King was the President Pro Tempore of the Senate, a ceremonial position filled by the longest-serving member of the majority party. He had to quit that job when tuberculosis left him on death's door…so he was promptly nominated for the VP under Franklin Pierce. When Pierce won, King was too sick to show up at the inauguration. So he was sworn in – in Cuba – before returning to the U.S. and immediately dying 36 hours later. Thus the man remembered only for being the roommate and possibly "roommate" of James Buchanan basked in the power and glory of the VP for all of 45 days, for all of which which he was either in Cuba, shitty wasted on laudanum, or shitty wasted on laudanum in Cuba.

The Inauguration of William King

Alas, the office has one overwhelming benefit which trumps all the monotony and irrelevance – if you're lucky (or if the President is particularly unlucky) you get to be President. That is, unless you're Garret Hobart. Hobart turned down the Vice-Presidency in 1881. Had he accepted, he would have become President upon the death of James Garfield at the hands of an assassin. Instead that honor went to Chester A. Arthur. Hobart learned his lesson, though, and accepted the office in 1896. Then he died in 1899. Had he lived just 18 more months he would have assumed the Presidency upon the death of William McKinley, also struck down by an assassin, in 1901.

The moral of the story is, don't be friends with Garret Hobart. Death stalks him.

To be continued!

**May not be an actual quote