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'MURICA!*

Some things you might not know, or want to know, about the American Presidency.

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ARTWORK BY ANGELINE NGIAM & SIMON ANG

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THE NUCLEAR FOOTBALL: A military aide carries a briefcase containing nuclear codes while following President Barack Obama on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, before his departure to Miami on Oct 20, 2016.

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ATTACK OF THE KILLER RABBIT: According to a news report, a giant swamp rabbit swam menacingly towards President Jimmy Carter while he was sitting in a fishing boat in Georgia, April 1979. In fact, the rabbit in question was being chased by hounds, jumped into the water, swam towards Mr Carter's boat, and got very near. He ''splashed some water with a paddle and the rabbit turned, went on and crawled out on the other side'', the former President later clarified.

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THE ELECTORATE STRIKES BACK: Some 10 past Presidents were not re-elected when they ran for a second term of office. Among them was George H W Bush.

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Giant killer swimming swamp rabbits! The Donald is now the most powerful man in the world, and many people are still picking their flabbergasted jaws off the deplorably great-again floor. This weekend, in the spirit of Trumpian improvisation and entertainment, Brunch brings you five highlights from the august institution of the American presidency. Horrifying, amusing, or simply enlightening? You decide.

*A regional pronunciation of "America", used in a humorous context to emphasise qualities regarded as stereotypically American, such as fervent patriotism.

- Oxford English Dictionary


For starters, the first woman to try - and fail - in her bid for the US Presidency wasn't Hillary Clinton. Far from it. Her name was Victoria Woodhull, a thrice-married spiritualist healer, women's rights advocate, stockbroker and newspaper editor - who managed to spend Election Day in jail, way back in 1872.

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Born in 1838, Mrs Woodhull had three years of formal education. She was first married, at age 15, to a doctor who turned out to be an alcoholic and a womaniser. She divorced him after bearing two children, but kept his surname.

At age 32, in 1870, she and her sister Tennessee opened a brokerage firm on Wall Street, becoming the first women stockbrokers there. They were supported by railroad and shipping magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt.

By that time, she had married her second husband, a colonel in the Union Army during the American Civil War.

The same year Mrs Woodhull opened a brokerage, she announced her intention to run for President. The two sisters founded a newspaper to help them do so.

A few days before the election, Mrs Woodhull was arrested on obscenity charges after publishing an account of an alleged adultery involving a prominent clergyman. It is not clear how many votes she received.

Criticised in the media, she eventually moved to London and married an English banker.

She would try to be nominated for the presidency a couple more times. She moved to the countryside after her husband died, and she died there herself, in Worcestershire, aged 88.

Victoria Woodhull wasn't that popular for her time, but neither are Mrs Clinton and Mr Trump today. In fact, some observers have wondered how long either would last in the White House.

If you are not a Trump fan, you might take comfort in how there were about 10 past presidents who did not get re-elected when they tried to run after their first term of office.

The most recent one-term president was George H W Bush, who was defeated by Bill Clinton in 1992.

A number of one-term presidents were also either not nominated after their first term, or did not seek one.

There is also the worry that an unpopular president might be assassinated, either from loonies wielding guns - far too common in America - or from politically-motivated hitmen.

This is arguably less of a concern with Mr Trump than with Mrs Clinton. Mr Trump appeared to have raised the possibility of a Clinton assassination during a rally, where he said that gun rights advocates, or the "Second Amendment people", might do something to prevent her from appointing a Supreme Court judge inclined towards gun control.

Nevertheless, for what it's worth, four sitting presidents have been assassinated by gunshot: Abraham Lincoln (elected in 1860 and 1864, killed 1865); James Garfield (elected in 1880, killed 1881); William McKinley (elected in 1896 and 1900, killed 1901); and John F Kennedy (elected in 1960, killed 1963).

Another four died of natural causes while in office: William Harrison (elected in 1840, died of pneumonia 1841); Zachary Taylor (elected in 1848, died of stomach-related illness in 1850); Warren Harding (elected in 1920, died of apparent heart attack in 1923); and Franklin D. Roosevelt (elected in 1932, 1936, 1940 and 1944, died of a stroke in 1945).

And one, Richard Nixon, resigned one-and-a-half years into his second term after the Watergate scandal.

In the unfortunate event of a presidential demise, or removal from office, the person next in line may become the next US President.

The succession goes like this:

1. Vice-President

2. Speaker of the House

3. President pro tempore of the Senate

4. Secretary of State

5. Secretary of the Treasury

6. Secretary of Defense

7. Attorney General

8. Secretary of the Interior

9. Secretary of Agriculture

10. Secretary of Labor

11. Secretary of Health and Human Services

12. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development

13. Secretary of Transportation

14. Secretary of Energy

15. Secretary of Education

16. Secretary of Veterans Affairs

17. Secretary of Homeland Security

If you are somewhere way down the line, say Transport Secretary, you might think you will never get the top job.

But hold on to that thought...

Nuclear footballs and biscuits

One of the legacies of the Cold War was a nuclear arms race between the US and the Soviet Union that could lead the world into mutually assured destruction.

How might that happen? There is no shiny red button that, when pressed, launches a nuclear-tipped warhead towards the enemy capital of choice.

Rather, President Trump will carry a card nicknamed "the biscuit", containing codes to identify himself as the nation's commander-in-chief to authorise a nuclear strike.

The biscuit is used together with the "nuclear football", a modified briefcase made by Zero Halliburton, a US company now owned by ACE, a Japanese bag company. Not sure what Mr Trump thinks about that.

Known as the "president's emergency satchel", the briefcase was called the football because an early nuclear war plan was supposedly codenamed Operation Drop Kick.

The power briefcase contains:

  • A 75-page black book containing a menu of retaliatory nuclear strike options, printed in black and red;
  • A list of classified sites where the President could shelter in an emergency;
  • Instructions for using the emergency broadcast system; and
  • A card with authentication codes.

The use of the nuclear football began after the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, when then President John F Kennedy wondered if, in the event that he should launch a nuclear attack, how should he do it, and how would the person on the receiving end of the instructions be able to verify that the orders actually came from the president.

The world might be a very different place now, but the US still goes head-to-head with Russia as the foremost nuclear powers of the world.

As of Sept 1, the US has exactly 1,367 "warheads on deployed ICBMs (intercontinental ballistic missiles), on deployed SLBMs (submarine-launched ballistic missiles), and nuclear warheads counted for deployed heavy bombers", reads a factsheet from the Department of State. Russia has 1,796.

The nuclear question has cropped up in the campaign.

To control his outbursts, Mr Trump's campaign reportedly restricted his access to his Twitter, to which US President Barack Obama said: "Now, if somebody can't handle a Twitter account, they can't handle the nuclear codes."

Well, yes he can, now. Fortunately, Mr Trump has been quoted saying he does not like nuclear proliferation, and "will be the last to use nuclear weapons" though he does not take the option off the table.

Designated apocalypse survivor

What happens should there be nuclear war, though? Whenever top leaders of the US are gathered in a single location, such as during the State of the Union address or on inauguration day, an individual becomes the "designated survivor".

This is usually a US Cabinet member who gets the honour of being whisked to a distant, secret location just in case a devastating attack kills everybody else in the line of succession.

The practice supposedly began amid fears of a nuclear attack during the Cold War.

Being asked to be the designated survivor can be quite an experience, as told in the tale of Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman in 1997.

Instead of being in Washington DC for Bill Clinton's State of the Union address, Mr Glickman flew to visit his daughter in New York to watch the speech - along with a doctor, Secret Service agents, and a military officer with the nuclear codes.

After the speech, Secret Service promptly left the apartment. Mr Glickman and his daughter ate a late dinner eight to 10 blocks from the apartment, but came out after dinner to a giant sleet storm.

He couldn't get a cab.

As he recounted to news site Mic: "There I was just a few minutes earlier, almost the most powerful person in the country, and now I couldn't even get a cab. There's a great lesson there in the impermanence of power."

Today, in a post-September 11 world, the practice has become more serious, according to a Washington Post article in September.

In fact, there are now two designated survivors, and those designated are a lot more tight-lipped on the details.

The caveats remain if you want to be President: You need to be at least 35 years old and a natural-born citizen of the US.

But you can still let your imagination run free. A new political drama with the same name, "Designated Survivor", is now running on the American Broadcasting Company (ABC) TV network.

The curious incident of the killer swimming rabbit in the pond

Speaking of sitting presidents who come under attack, the incident of the giant swamp rabbit that swam menacingly towards President Jimmy Carter while he was sitting in a fishing boat in Georgia still crops up from time to time.

His press secretary Jody Powell was there that fateful afternoon and recounted the incident to an Associated Press correspondent, who filed a story the next day with the headline: "Bunny Goes Bugs: Rabbit Attacks President".

The story made it to the front page of The Washington Post, which used a cartoon parody of the man-eating shark movie poster "JAWS", and labelled it "PAWS".

Columnists lapped up the idea of a hapless president attacked by a bunny. Even folk singer Tom Paxton got in on the action with a song: "I don't want a bunny wunny".

As it went:

"I don't want a bunny wunny

In my widdle wow boat

In my widdle wow boat in the pond

For the bunny might be crazy

And he'll bite me in the froat

In my widdle wow boat in the pond"

Poor President Carter. Historians don't think much of him either, though he eventually was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his non-profit Carter Center.

But you didn't think rabbits could swim, did you?

As the former president recounted to CNN in 2010, some 31 years after the incident, his press secretary probably embellished a few things as he recounted the humorous anecdote to the lucky reporter.

Wild animals all know how to swim, Mr Carter said. The rabbit in question was being chased by hounds, jumped into the water, swam towards his boat, and got very near.

Mr Carter "splashed some water with a paddle and the rabbit turned, went on and crawled out on the other side".

There was nothing to it, he said.

But if anything came out of it, pet rabbit owners found out something new about those cute creatures with the pointy ears.

As Mr Carter recalled: "After that a lot of people that had tame bunny rabbits threw them in their swimming pools and so forth and they wrote me and said, their rabbits could swim too."

As the world goes down the rabbit hole, perhaps we can all hope: That the biggest defining incident of a Trump presidency will be an amphibious rabbit strike.

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