Presidents’ pasts catch up with them

Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks at a campaign stop in Omaha, Neb., Thursday, May 10, 2012. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks at a campaign stop in Omaha, Neb., Thursday, May 10, 2012. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
Posted: May 21, 2012

See if you can distinguish the real news story from the overwritten fake ones.

Philadelphia Public Ledger, April 1, 1789: The man who led U.S. forces through the nation’s longest war, and who this month will become its first chief executive thanks to a lack of opposition and a unanimous vote in the Electoral College, has a dark side when it comes to environmental issues.

The Ledger has learned, through sources both on and off the record, that what was once thought of strictly as a legend seems to be true. A young George Washington did indeed, with malice aforethought, chop down a cherry tree — as he admitted to his father, according to contemporary accounts.

The young axman, of course, deserves credit for owning up to this fit of temper, as even his political critics will freely admit. It is the act itself, however, that raises serious questions about his ability to act as a responsible steward of the young nation’s natural resources.

“He was like a tiny man possessed, wooden teeth set, his powdered wig askew,” said a former neighbor and boyhood chum who declined to talk on the record about one of the wealthiest men in the Commonwealth of Virginia, who will soon be the nation’s most powerful citizen. “It was a hack job. It was vicious.”

Another bystander, on whose foot the tree would land, is still haunted by the environmental degradation he witnessed that day.

“It happened very quickly, and to this day it troubles me,” said Josiah Randolph, who, too stunned to move out of the way of the falling tree, continues to walk with a limp.

Supporters of the president-elect dismiss the 50-year-old incident, and the chorus of criticism within the nascent environmental movement. They point to years of sound management of his estate, Mount Vernon, his raising of hemp, some say for medicinal purposes, as evidence that Washington has evolved.

Boston Herald, March 1, 1829: Does President-elect Andrew Jackson have an anger-management problem?

It is a question that the nation must ask itself as it prepares to say farewell to its chief executive, Massachusetts’ favorite son, John Quincy Adams, statesman, diplomat extraordinaire, and cerebral Harvard graduate, and turns power over to frontiersman, warrior, and duelist Jackson, whose greatest claim to fame, the infamous Battle of New Orleans, happened after a peace treaty had been signed with Great Britain, ending the War of 1812 that Jackson insisted on still fighting.

That chapter in the Tennessean’s life is already well-known, and history and the Almighty will be his final judges in the matter. What is less studied are the roots of Jackson’s rage, the seeds of anger that were planted in youth and continue to regularly blossom in fits of outrage.

A retired British military official, now in hiding because of fear of retaliation by the soon-to-be president, remembers encountering a teenage Andrew Jackson in the spring of 1781, the height of the rebellion, in the then-colony of South Carolina.

Granted, tensions were high. British troops were, in fact, pillaging the countryside, taking some colonists prisoner, killing others. But, supporters say, one must keep in mind that they were representing the nation’s lawful ruler.

Jackson and his brother had been taken into custody. One British officer, trying to look his best under difficult circumstances, ordered the 14-year-old to polish his boots.

Showing the defiance that more and more Americans are becoming familiar with, Jackson refused, reportedly saying, “Sir, I am a prisoner of war, and claim to be treated as such.”

The former officer remembers all too well. “He wasn’t using his indoor voice,” the man recalls. “I thought then, ‘There’s a wild and crazy man inside of there just waiting to come out.’?” ...

The New York Times, Feb. 9, 2008: Nearly three decades ago, Barack Obama stood out on the small campus of Occidental College in Los Angeles for his eloquence, intellect, and activism against apartheid in South Africa. But Mr. Obama, then known as Barry, also joined in the party scene.

Years later in his 1995 memoir, he mentioned smoking “reefer” in “the dorm room of some brother” and talked about “getting high.” Before Occidental, he indulged in marijuana, alcohol, and sometimes cocaine as a high school student in Hawaii ...

Mr. Obama ... wrote about his two years at Occidental, a predominantly white liberal arts college, as a gradual but profound awakening from a slumber of indifference that gave rise to his activism there and his fears that drugs could lead him to addiction or apathy, as they had for many other black men. ...

In more than three dozen interviews, friends, classmates, and mentors from his high school and Occidental recalled Mr. Obama as being grounded, motivated, and poised, someone who did not appear to be grappling with any drug problems.

Contact Kevin Ferris at 215-854-5305 or kf@phillynews.com.

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