If Texas Gov. George W. Bush repeats history and becomes the second man to follow his father into the White House, he also will set a speed record.
Three men came after John Adams Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe before John Quincy Adams became the nation’s sixth chief executive in 1825. Only one man, President Clinton, would come between George Bush senior and Dubya.
Yet despite this interesting information about the Bushes and the Adamses, Americans probably will pay scant attention to the man who started it all, the bombastic John Adams.
“John Adams was one of the great presidents,” says Edith B. Gelles, who teaches Colonial history at Stanford University in California, “and he also is one of the most overlooked presidents.”
True, the White House Historical Association is throwing a 200th-anniversary bash on Nov. 1, the day John Adams became the first president to spend the night at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
“He was the first man to open the White House to the public, to really establish the idea that it was the people’s house,” says Hugh Sidey, president of the White House Historical Association. “That was Jan. 1, 1801, when there was an open reception. This is the people’s house. That’s direct from Adams, his state of mind, his soul.”
Even Mr. Sidey admits that the celebration honors the house more than the man. The association’s spring 2000 edition of its semiannual journal, White House History, was devoted to the first first family to move into the White House.
The cover, by Tom Freeman, depicts the early White House dwarfing the second president, a mere speck standing in front of his house, holding a lantern, inspecting the muddy, still unfinished front of the grounds.
“John Adams came down as an aesthetic New Englander,” Mr. Sidey says. “He didn’t like the idea at all, moving to Washington with these Southerners. He was kind of dyspeptic, a sour guy, but he was a brilliant man.”
Maybe that is why Adams is not memorialized like the two presidential giants he came between, George Washington and Jefferson. The only Adams honor in the nation’s capital is a branch of the Library of Congress that is named for him.
According to spokesman Craig D’Ooge, it has no bust or statue to honor him, unlike those in the Jefferson and Madison buildings. Even obscure presidents, such as James Buchanan and James A. Garfield, have statues in the capital city. On top of that, groundbreaking begins today for a Mall memorial to patriot George Mason, who wasn’t even president and refused to sign the Constitution.
None of this would surprise Adams. The thin-skinned New Englander with the courtly manners was mocked as “His Rotundity” and “Old Sink or Swim.” The Broadway musical “1776” contains a song refrain taken from Adams’ own words: “I’m obnoxious and disliked, you know that, sir.”
Perhaps there was some cause. The Federalist president signed the Alien and Sedition Acts, a bald attempt at destroying his Jefferson-led opposition. Yet Adams also could look back on an administration that came perilously close to war with France. The president stood up to Alexander Hamilton, who thirsted for war and whom Adams despised, and kept the peace.
“Here’s a guy that took over where not only were we skeptical that the White House would stick around,” Mr. Sidey says, “but there were grave doubts about the republic, whether it would go on too much longer. I think he was one of those grand men that helped steady things.”
Beyond his presidency, Adams was known as the “Atlas of Independence.” He argued before the Continental Congress in favor of independence and led the team that drafted the Declaration of Independence in 1776.
“There’s no monument to John Adams, and there ought to be,” Ms. Gelles says. “He’s the person historians love to hate, though people who work on him love him.”
David McCullough, author of the Pulitzer-Prize winning “Truman,” is one such historian. His book “John Adams” comes out at the end of May from Simon & Schuster. Celeste Walker, with the Massachusetts Historical Society, believes Adams’ “star is rising again.”
“He’s one of the most accessible Founding Fathers,” Ms. Walker says. “He wrote everything. He wrote when he was happy; he wrote when he was sad. People can see that he’s very much a person they can understand.”
While critical historians may compare the Bushes to the horrific Addams Family, links to John Adams and the senior George Bush aren’t far off the mark: John Adams came to the White House with a resume as corpulent as his 5-foot-6 frame. He served as minister to France and Great Britain as well as high-profile delegate to the Continental Congress. Likewise, the gangly, affable George Bush was a congressman, CIA director and chairman of the Republican Party.
“They both had the same kind of flinty outlook that was keep things simple, keep them direct, be honest,” Mr. Sidey says. “Politics in Adams’ day and age could be more outspoken, and Adams was. Mr. Bush was a little more muted and tried to get along with people.”
John Adams and the senior Mr. Bush also were vice presidents who followed popular presidents. Both elders also were beaten for second terms by Jeffersons Thomas Jefferson and William Jefferson Clinton who went on to enjoy presidential re-elections. Barbara Bush (the “Silver Fox”) may have been a strong-willed mother and presidential wife, but Abigail Adams held the patent.
“She was the only woman until the mid-20th century who had such a relationship with the president that she was able to participate with him as a sounding board,” says Ms. Gelles, who also wrote, “Portia: The World of Abigail Adams.”
“Abigail was honest and didn’t have a political persona that was designed for the purpose of making newspaper headlines,” she says.
Yet there are differences in the sons. John Quincy was hairless as a cue ball while George W. sports a thatch of hair as dense as Brillo. (Just like their dads.)
Likewise, John Quincy’s public service resume outshines George W.’s. John Quincy began his public life at age 11, accompanying his father on diplomatic trips to Europe. He was a diplomat, U.S. senator and secretary of state. George W. was elected and re-elected governor of Texas.
“It’s only been eight years since George Bush was president,” Ms. Walker says. “With John Adams, it was 24 years. It was an entirely new generation, so there isn’t that continuity that you get with the Bushes. George W. Bush will run into many people his father dealt with in Congress.”
Like his father, however, the younger Adams served only one term as president; he was trounced by Andrew Jackson in 1828. Should the younger Bush take the White House, he may not wish to repeat that piece of history.