Remembering Presidential Ailments

In honor of Presidents' Day, Esquire magazine editor A.J. Jacobs discusses presidential infirmities. For example, James Buchanan suffered from eye problems, and Grover Cleveland underwent a secret operation on private yacht to remove jaw cancer.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

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Monday is President's Day, a day to honor Washington, Lincoln and Millard Fillmore. Well, maybe not Millard Fillmore.

But to fill in some gaps of presidential knowledge, we turn to Esquire magazine's A.J. Jacobs, the man who read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica.

Welcome back A.J.

Mr. A.J. JACOBS (Editor, Esquire Magazine): Thank you for having me.

SIMON: I understand a number of presidents labored under particular infirmity. Let me put it that way.

Mr. JACOBS: That is true. Buchanan - James Buchanan was farsighted in one eye and nearsighted in the other. So the poor man when he talked to people, he would have to tilt his head at a very bizarre angle. And I can't say for sure this ruined his dating life, but he didn't ever marry. He was the only…

SIMON: He was the only bachelor, yes.

Mr. JACOBS: Only bachelor president, that's right.

SIMON: Are there presidents who struggled briefly with infirmities?

Mr. JACOBS: Well, just staying on the eye thing for one moment, this was not the president, but Ulysses S. Grant's wife, Julia, was cross-eyed and would only pose for portraits facing one side.

SIMON: I actually knew that. My mother used to do a one woman show as Julia Dent Grant.

Mr. JACOBS: That's great.

SIMON: No, I - they're laughing in the control room. This is absolutely true. My mother was married to Ralph Newman, who was a very famous Lincoln Scholar and they would go to all these Lincoln things and my mother just began to read about Julia Dent Grant and so she began to do this one woman show as Julia Dent Grant.

Mr. JACOBS: Just to keep on this theme for one more second...

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. JACOBS: As the encyclopedia has a bizarre number of cross-eyed references. I'm not sure why, but the philosopher Rene Descartes had a fetish for cross-eyed women, so no doubt he would have been smitten by Julia Grant.

SIMON: I guess history is lucky they never met. I mean, gosh knows what Grant would have done with Richmond if he was nursing a broken heart because some French guy had waltz off with Julia. Now I understand that Grover Cleveland had some health problems in the White House that he wanted to conceal.

Mr. JACOBS: That's right. In 1893, Cleveland went on a quote, "sailing trip" over the summer. But unbeknownst to the public, he was actually having a secret operation on a private yacht to remove jaw cancer.

SIMON: On a boat?

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: I mean - I mean whoops.

Mr. JACOBS: It reminds me of that Saturday Night Live commercial with the boil in the back seat.

SIMON: The boil in the back, yes, exactly, yes. And finally, quite a hobby that President John Adams developed.

Mr. JACOBS: Yeah, this was one of the more bizarre, if I had to make a list of the five most bizarre facts in the encyclopedia, I think this one would make the list, because it says that after he retired John Adams would spend his mornings drinking hard cider and quote, "rejoicing at the size of his manure pile," unquote. So make of that what you will. He was a very proud farmer or maybe a disturbed man.

SIMON: Okay. Well, A.J., always nice talking to you.

Mr. JACOBS: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: A.J. Jacobs, his latest book is "The Year of Living Biblically."

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