6 Presidential Siblings and the Headaches They Caused

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Every aspect of the American presidency comes under intense scrutiny, but few parts of a president's life contain as many amusing, slightly sordid anecdotes as their siblings' behavior. When a new president takes office, his ne'er-do-well siblings receive a whole slew of opportunities for corrupt behavior, legal scrapes, and generally humiliating mayhem. Here are a few of our favorites:

1. Neil Bush: Opening Doors When Opportunity Knocks!

George W. Bush's younger brother Neil certainly hasn't done much to make his brother's political life any easier. Neil's been making the wrong kind of news since as far back as the 1980s, when as the son of Vice President George H.W. Bush he served as a director of Silverado Savings and Loan, which cost taxpayers an estimated $1 billion when it collapsed. He drew accusations of insider trading chicanery in 1999 when he made nearly $800,000 in three trades of Kopin Corporation stock in a single day; Bush had been a consultant for Kopin and sold on the day the stock's price soared as the result of good news from a client. Bush also had a somewhat dubious-sounding arrangement with Grace Semiconductor, a Chinese company with ties to former Chinese president Jiang Zemin. Despite admittedly not knowing anything about semiconductors, Bush had a deal to receives $2 million in stock and $10,000 for every board meeting he attended to discuss business strategies, a deal that led to claims of influence peddling.

These little business episodes were just appetizers for Bush's truly bizarre 2003 divorce proceedings. His wife Sharon Smith accused Bush of enjoying the company of high-priced escorts on business trips to Thailand and Hong Kong. (Bush's defense:  yes, he had sex with these strange women, but they might not have been prostitutes. They just showed up at his door, and he slept with them. No money changed hands.) Not content to let things die with that simple embarrassment of infidelity, Neil's friend John Spalding accused Sharon of pulling out Neil's hair for use in a voodoo curse. Sharon countered that she simply wanted the hair tested for evidence of cocaine use. In either event, the President couldn't have been too pleased as this saga played out in front of the media.

2. Roger Clinton: Codename "Headache"

Some presidential siblings wait until their brother takes up residence in the White House to start making trouble. Not Bill Clinton's half-brother Roger, though. By the time Bill had jumped from the Arkansas' governor's mansion to Washington, Roger had already spent a year behind bars for a 1984 cocaine distribution arrest. He then spent much of Bill's two terms trying to realize his dream of becoming an Elvis-like rock star with his band, Politics, and appearing in a string of abysmal movies that must have been almost as embarrassing for Bill as the cocaine arrest. (It's one thing to get in trouble for drug trafficking, but it's quite another to have the poor judgment to appear opposite Pauly Shore in Bio-Dome.) Despite his busy schedule, he still found time to get into an altercation with a stockbroker at a Knicks game in 1993 and later unsuccessfully lobbied for pardons for his drug-dealing chums. Bill actually included Roger's cocaine arrest in his flurry of pardons in 2001; Roger showed his gratitude by promptly getting arrested for drunk driving a month later.

3 & 4. Hugh and Tony Rodham: Brothers in Harm

Despite the nickname, Roger might not even have been the biggest familial headache Bill Clinton had to deal with during his term. Instead, the Clintons introduced a new species of White House blight: bad presidential brothers-in-law. While Roger was pretty much a run-of-the-mill troublemaker, Hillary's brothers Hugh and Tony were bumbling power grabbers who kept making almost comical attempts to capitalize on their sister's high station. In 1999, Hugh, a former Florida public defender, and Tony, whose resume included work as both a private eye and a repo man, joined in on a $118 million business plan to process and import hazelnuts from the Republic of Georgia. There was a slight hitch though: the brothers' key connection in Georgia was a major political rival of Georgia's president (a key American ally). Bill and Hillary had to work in tandem with National Security Advisor Sandy Berger to talk the brothers out of their hazelnut empire. (We can only hope Roger Clinton would later defend his own antics with, ""¦yeah, but I never attempted to politically destabilize former Soviet republics, did I?")

After this episode, Hugh seemed to start behaving. That image only lasted for a couple of years, though. When Bill Clinton issued the slew of pardons before leaving office in 2001, drug dealer Carlos Vignali and Glenn Braswell, who had peddled a fake baldness cure by mail, received a sentence commutation and a pardon, respectively. Somehow, Hugh Rodham pocketed $400,000 for offering legal help in acquiring the pardons. Although the transaction may have been perfectly legal, it certainly didn't appear all that kosher, and the Clintons suffered further embarrassment when the story broke.

5. Billy Carter: The Mother of all Brothers

Truly the standard by which all other presidential sibling's antics are judged, Billy burst onto the national scene as the boisterous, hard-drinking counterpoint to his pious, reserved brother Jimmy. Billy's early antics were amusing and fairly innocuous: he endorsed the legendarily terrible Billy Beer in an effort to make a little cash off of his hard-living image, and he made quips like, "My mother went into the Peace Corps when she was sixty-eight. My one sister is a motorcycle freak, my other sister is a Holy Roller evangelist and my brother is running for president. I'm the only sane one in the family."  While he worked hard to convey a roughneck bumpkin image to the press, Billy's confidantes claimed that he was in fact well-read and an able businessman who used his Southern bona fides to help his older brother's political cause. On the other hand, Billy's drinking turned from amusing to tragic as his fame grew.

In 1979, he had to go into rehab to curb his drinking. Around the same time he nearly lost his Georgia home to the IRS for failing to pay a six-figure federal income tax bill for 1978.

The real capper, though, came when Billy began consorting with Libya at a time when relations between the North African nation and the U.S. were starting to strain. In 1978 he made a trip to Libya with a group of Georgia businessmen who were interested in expanding trade with the country; Billy then hosted a Libyan delegation in Atlanta. When questioned about his dealings, Billy responded, "The only thing I can say is there is a hell of a lot more Arabians than there is Jews," a public-relations nightmare for which he later apologized. The damage got worse in 1980 when Billy registered as an agent of the Libyan government and received a $220,000 loan from the Libyans for helping facilitate oil sales. This transaction led to accusations of influence peddling and a Congressional investigation. In short, it was enough to make Jimmy Carter long for the days when his brother's antics only included such little quirks as urinating in public in front of a group of reporters and dignitaries.

6. Donald Nixon: Big Loans for Small Potatoes

Prior to 1960, nobody had even heard of Donald Nixon, even though his brother Richard had been VP under Eisenhower. When Richard launched his own presidential campaign against JFK, though, Donald found himself flung into the spotlight. Don was a restaurateur, and not a very good one. In 1954, he was running a chain of Nixon's drive-ins in Whittier, California and fell upon some tough financial times. In an effort to keep the business afloat, he accepted a $205,000 loan from Howard Hughes. "Big Don," as he called himself, never got around to paying Hughes back, and voters had to wonder why a defense contractor like Hughes was suddenly so interested in a chain of burger joints that just happened to be run by the Vice President's rotund brother. Whatever the reasoning, the loan wasn't enough, and the chain went under the following year.
Don caused a second stir in 1969 by once again joining his pal Hughes for a shadowy trip to the Dominican Republic. Nothing came of this episode, but it certainly didn't look good to have Big Don once again flitting about with Hughes. All of this might explain why the press later learned in 1973 that during Nixon had the Secret Service tap Big Don's phone calls lest he do something illegal, or even more problematic embarrassing to his brother.

HON. MENTION: Sam Houston Johnson

Lyndon Johnson's brother loved to have him some drinks. Once hammered, he'd get chatty with the press, a habit that LBJ eventually curbed by placing him under Secret Service surveillance. According to several sources, he'd occasionally pass a bad check, too. Sam Houston Johnson later wrote a book My Brother Lyndon in which he slammed LBJ as a bully who was a difficult boss. As Time put it, "A rivalry with the leader of the free world played hell with Sam's self-image."

14 Things You Might Not Have Known About James K. Polk

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Matthew Brady/Getty Images

James K. Polk may have served just one term, but he was one of history’s most consequential U.S. presidents. Polish up on Young Hickory, America's 11th Commander in Chief.

1. James K. Polk had surgery to remove urinary bladder stones when he was 16.

Born on November 2, 1795, James Knox Polk was the oldest of 10 children born to Samuel Polk, a farmer and surveyor, and his wife, Jane. When James was 10, the family moved to Tennessee and settled on a farm in Maury County. As a child, James was too ill to attend formal school; just before he turned 17, he had urinary bladder stones surgically removed by Ephraim McDowell, a prominent Kentucky surgeon. Anesthesia wasn’t available at that time, so the future president reportedly dulled the pain with brandy. The surgery allowed the formerly ill Polk to attend formal schooling for the first time. He entered the University of North Carolina as a sophomore after just 2.5 years of formal schooling. According to Britannica, "as a graduating senior in 1818 he was the Latin salutatorian of his class—a preeminent scholar in both the classics and mathematics." After graduation, he returned to Tennessee to study law and eventually opened up his own practice.

2. James K. Polk won a seat on the Tennessee Legislature at 27, and the U.S. House of Representatives at 29.

During his time in the state legislature, he met—and befriended—future president Andrew Jackson. He also began courting his future wife, Sarah Childress. The daughter of a prominent planter, she had been educated at the prestigious Moravian Female Academy in Salem, North Carolina, and was an eager and active participant in his political campaigns. Polk and Sarah married in 1824. In 1825, Polk was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives; he was speaker of the House from 1835 until he left in 1839 to become governor of Tennessee.

3. James K. Polk's nomination for president surprised everyone—including himself.

Months before the democratic national convention of 1844, Polk was at a low point. He had just lost his bid to be re-elected governor of Tennessee (he had been voted out of office in 1841 and tried—and failed—to be elected again in 1843). But when the delegates at the convention couldn’t agree on a nominee—the party was deadlocked between Martin Van Buren and Lewis Cass—they eventually decided to compromise by picking a “dark horse” candidate: Polk.

4. Everyone thought James K. Polk would lose his bid for the presidency.

Despite being a seven-time congressman, a former Speaker of the House, and an ex-governor, Polk was a relative nobody. His opponent Henry Clay lamented that Democrats had failed to choose someone “more worthy of a contest.” Despite the doubts, Polk won the popular vote by nearly 40,000 and the Electoral College 170-105.

5. During James K. Polk's White House "office hours," any American could stop by.

During Polk’s day, anybody was permitted to visit the White House for “office hours.” For two days every week, concerned citizens and lobbyists could drop by to vouch for a cause or ask for political favors. “Job seekers were the worst, in Polk’s view, and he found their incessant interruptions far more annoying than his Whig opponents in Congress,” writes Walter R. Borneman in his book Polk: The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America.

6. James K. Polk was remarkably boring.

Polk had as much charisma as a puddle of mud. He was straight-laced, somber, and humorless. As Speaker, an editor in Washington called him the "most unpretending man, for his talents, this, or perhaps any country, has ever seen." Some attributed Polk’s boringness to his refusal to drink socially. The politician Sam Houston supposedly called him “a victim of the use of water as a beverage.” (Sarah banned hard liquor—and dancing—from the White House.)

7. James K. Polk worked 12 hour days and didn't take much time off from the presidency.

Polk regularly spent 12 hours a day at the office. He rarely left Washington, took advice, or delegated. When he wanted to lobby for policy, he’d visit Congress and do it himself. Over the course of his single term, Polk took a total of just 27 days off. “No President who performs his duty faithfully and conscientiously can have any leisure,” Polk wrote.

8. James K. Polk acquired America's first patch of Pacific coastline.

In the early 19th century, the Pacific Northwest was jointly occupied by British and American settlers. But as the century progressed, Americans began to outnumber the British, and they increasingly felt like the rightful owners of the “Oregon Country.” Thankfully, neither country was interested in battling over the land. In 1846, Polk and the British drew a border at the 49th parallel (with some adjustment for Vancouver Island)—what is now Washington State’s boundary with Canada. With that, the United States obtained its first uncontested patch of Pacific coastline.

9. James K. Polk waged a controversial—and consequential—war with Mexico.

In the 1840s, Mexico’s border encompassed California, the American southwest, and even parts of Colorado and Wyoming. Polk wanted this land. In 1845, he offered to buy some disputed territory near the Texas-Mexico border, as well as land in California; when Mexico refused, Polk sent troops into the disputed territory. Mexico retaliated. Polk then requested Congress to declare war. His critics (including a young Abraham Lincoln) complained that Polk had deliberately provoked Mexico. Whatever Polk’s motivations, the United States lost 13,000 men and approximately $100 million in the ensuing war—but succeeded in taking one-third of Mexico’s land.

10. James K. Polk is the reason the United States stretches from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean.

In the course of just one term, Polk oversaw one of the greatest territorial expansions of any president—an increase of 1.2 million square miles. His administration extended the United States boundary to the Pacific Ocean and laid the groundwork for states such as California, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Washington, Idaho, Oregon, and Montana.

11. James K. Polk's ambivalence toward the issue of slavery may have sparked the Civil War.

When Polk’s administration began pushing westward, debate raged over how these new territories could alter the power balance between free and slave states. Polk, who considered slavery a side issue, refused to give the rancor much time or attention. (No doubt because of his own relationship with slavery. He owned more than 20 enslaved people and brought them to the White House.) Polk’s ambivalence helped sow so much discord that historians now consider his rapid expansion westward as the first steps toward the Civil War.

12. James K. Polk signed bills that reshaped Washington, D.C.

Polk accomplished a lot in just four years. During his tenure, he signed the Smithsonian Institution into law. He was instrumental to the construction of the Washington Monument and helped establish the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. He also re-established an independent U.S. Treasury, which was partly intended to reduce the role of speculation in the economy.

13. James K. Polk's administration introduced Americans to the postage stamp.

One of Polk’s unofficial campaign managers was a Nosferatu-lookalike named Cave Johnson, who Polk rewarded with a job as Postmaster General. It was a tough gig. The post office’s budget was swimming in red ink. (At the time, mail recipients paid postage: If a mail carrier failed to find a recipient, no money was made. This happened a lot.) Johnson fixed the financial problem by introducing the prepaid postage stamp, which flipped the responsibility of paying to senders. According to historian C. L. Grant, in 1845, Johnson estimated that the department would have a deficit of over a million dollars. By the time he left that was down to $30,000.

14. The location of James K. Polk's grave is causing a stir in Tennessee.

Polk died, likely of cholera, in 1849, just months after leaving office. Because he died of an infectious disease, the president was hastily buried in a city cemetery near the outskirts of Nashville. Months later, he was re-interred near his Nashville mansion, Polk Place. In 1893, his tomb was moved again to the state Capitol grounds. Today, Tennessee legislators are actively debating whether to move Polk’s bones a fourth time, this time to his old family home in Columbia, Tennessee.

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