Let’s be honest: Presidents’ Day is not exactly a birthday bash. Nevertheless, the annual holiday is a time to recognize the lives and achievements of our country’s presidents. Two of the Hudson Valley’s most famous native sons — Martin Van Buren (born in Kinderhook, Columbia County) and Franklin D. Roosevelt (of Hyde Park in Dutchess County) — both achieved this nation’s highest office. Although their presidential terms were almost exactly 100 years apart, there are some notable similarities — as well as major differences — between MVB and FDR. Check out our presidential tale of the tape.
Most ready for prime time: MVB
Sure, FDR had his cozy fireside chats, but MVB became a pop icon in prime time after being mentioned on Seinfeld. In the 148th episode of the show, Kramer is menaced by “the Van Buren Gang.” He saves himself by accidentally putting up eight fingers, the group’s secret membership sign. (Van Buren was the eighth president.)
Pithiest quotemeister: FDR
FDR: “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”
MVB: “To avoid the necessity of a permanent debt and its inevitable consequences, I have advocated and endeavored to carry into effect the policy of confining the appropriations for the public service to such objects only as are clearly with the constitutional authority of the Federal Government.” (Say what?)
Lowest low point in administration: MVB
FDR gave in to “fear itself” after America went to war with the Japanese. In 1942 he authorized the internment of about 110,000 Japanese-Americans and Japanese nationals, most of whom lived near the West Coast. (In 1988 Congress issued a governmental apology for the mass imprisonment.) But at least FDR didn’t crow about what he did. MVB oversaw the final years of the forced removal of Native Americans from the South, known as the Trail of Tears. About 4,000 of the 15,000 Cherokee Indians forced to march to Oklahoma died of disease, starvation, and exhaustion. “It affords me sincere pleasure to be able to apprise you of the entire removal of the Cherokee Nation of Indians to their new homes west of the Mississippi,” he bragged.
Most unfinished wars when leaving office: FDR
FDR shepherded the country through four years of World War II, but died just weeks before Germany surrendered to Allied forces. (Japan surrendered four months later.) MVB’s wars were closer to home. The Aroostook War, which ended in 1839, was a bloodless dustup with the British in what is now Maine. Nevertheless, MVB did bring it to a conclusion, unlike the seven-year Second Seminole War in Florida, which ended in 1842, two years after MVB lost his bid for a second term.
Biggest inspiration for Gov. Sarah Palin: MVB
Palin served as Alaska’s chief executive for less than three years before resigning to run for vice president. Similarly, MVB had barely moved into the governor’s mansion before he was packing again. He began his term as New York governor on New Year’s Day in 1829. About two months later he resigned that office when President Andrew Jackson appointed him secretary of state.
Hardest to nickname: FDR
Normally, politicos in exile from the White House churn out nicknames for its occupant like insults to a referee. But such was the disdain that Republicans felt during FDR’s reign that many of them wouldn’t deign to call him anything. Thus, they came to refer to him as “That Man in the White House,” or “That Man” for short. Meanwhile, MVB had more nicknames than a Chicago gangster: The American Talleyrand, the Careful Dutchman, the Enchanter, the Little Magician (he was only five feet, six inches tall), and the Red Fox of Kinderhook. Indeed, if not for his campaigning under the moniker “Old Kinderhook,” the word “OK” might never have made it into today’s global lexicon.
Most likely to know a secret handshake: FDR
He was one of 15 presidents — including George Washington — who was a Freemason.
Biggest kiss-up: MVB
President Andrew Jackson groomed MVB for the White House by choosing him as his second-term VP. Upon winning the presidency, MVB went all sycophantic: “On receiving from the people the sacred trust twice confided on my illustrious predecessor, and which he has discharged so faithfully and so well, I know that I can not expect to perform the arduous task with equal ability and success.”
Most accomplished polyglot: FDR
As well as speaking that Harvard-tinged English, FDR was fluent in German and French. Not that MVB was a language slouch. He was the only president for whom English was a second language. Dutch was his native tongue.
We’re back! Park rangers at Martin Van Buren National Historic Site were happy to return to work this morning. Although our site is closed for the winter, we are excited to plan programs and research for the coming year. And remember, grounds are open year round! #mvbthemvp #martinvanburen #nps #rangerlife #educate #conserve #findyourpark
Most closely related to Theodore Roosevelt: FDR
MVB was a third cousin twice removed from Teddy, the 26th president. FDR was Teddy’s fifth cousin. It would probably take a genealogical guru to figure out which of these is closer, so we’re going to cheat: FDR’s wife, Eleanor, was Teddy’s niece.
Highest honor: FDR
He is one of 14 presidents to have mountains named after them: The 9,500-foot Mount Roosevelt is in Canada.
Most depressing administration: FDR
Both presidents presided over decimated economies. FDR struggled to overcome the Great Depression with limited success until the outbreak of World War II fired up manufacturing. The Panic of 1837 was MVB’s own financial crisis, complete with bank closures. It plagued him throughout his term, and provided him with yet another nickname, courtesy of the Whig Party: Martin Van Ruin.