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The presidents

Feb 20, 2012 - By Steven R. Peck

Monday brings Presidents Day, a federal holiday built roughly around the February birthdays of Washington and Lincoln, whose birthdays (Feb. 22 and Feb. 9) were unofficial holidays for more than a century before the federal holiday was set for the third Monday in February. There is enough potential research on the 44 presidents to fill two lifetimes at least, but something as simple as the calendar provides enough tidbits to satisfy nearly any trivia buff -- a membership which includes the editorial writer.

Incidentally, two other presidents have February birthdays, William Henry Harrison (Feb. 9) and Ronald Reagan (Feb. 6).

Most presidents are in their mid-50s when taking office. Three of the first four, in fact, were the same age -- 57 -- when they were sworn in: Washington, Jefferson and Madison. The exception was John Adams, who was 61 at inauguration.

It could be argued that the presidency is the most patriotic job in the United States, and one president was born on the Fourth of July. That was Calvin Coolidge, born July 4, 1872. And two president have died on that flag-waving day. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson not only died on the Fourth of July, it was on exactly the same day, July 4, 1826.

The shortest term of office was 30 days, by William Henry Harrison, who was inaugurated March 4, 1841, and died exactly one month later. At age 68, he also was the oldest president up to that time, and he remained the oldest man ever elected to a first term as president for 140 years, until Ronald Reagan, who was 69 when he took office in 1981.

The first man younger than 50 to be elected president was James K. Polk, who defeated Henry Clay in 1844 at age 49. He served one term and died just three months after leaving office. He was just 53, and to this day remains the shortest-lived president to die of natural causes. Only James Garfield, assassinated in 1881 at age 49, and John F. Kennedy, assassinated in 1963 at age 46, lived shorter lives among U.S. presidents.

We tend to think of the presidency as a proposition covering eight straight years, but that has happened in only 12 of the 44 presidencies to date. Five of the first seven presidents served two full terms (only the father and son Adams didn't), but after Andrew Jackson left office in 1831, it didn't happen again for more than three decades, when Ulysses S. Grant retired after two terms in 1869.

There are two anomalies to the preceding note. Grover Cleveland served two full terms, but not consecutively. And Theodore Roosevelt almost made it, taking office just a few months after the assassinated William McKinley's inauguration in 1901 and serving the nearly four years left in McKinley's term, then being elected himself for another four years.

Put another way, only about one president in four serves two full, consecutive terms. Later this year we'll see if Barack Obama gets his chance to become the 13th president to it, or whether he'll become the 31st to fall short.

The youngest president before 1900 was Grant, who was 46 when he took the oath in 1869. (He was 42 when, as a Union general, he accepted Robert E. Lee's surrender that ended the Civil War. Lee was 57.)

Of the five youngest men ever to hold the presidency, two have served in recent history: Bill Clinton (46 years and seven months upon taking office in 1993) and Barack Obama (47 years and six months in 2009). The other three younges: Grant (46 years, 11 months), Kennedy 43 years, four months in 1961) and Theodore Roosevelt (42 years, one month in 1901).

A record-setting president is still among us. Jimmy Carter, who left office in 1981 at age 56, has survived after leaving office longer than any U.S. president. Now 87, he has been out of office for 32 years.

The only other President to live as long as 30 years after office was Herbert Hoover, who left office in 1933 and died in 1964.

Presidents Day takes on a bit of extra significance in an election year. No matter who wins in November, he'll be one for the record books, one way or another. -- Steven R. Peck

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