It’s a common desire. Many parents secretly hope their child grows up to become President of the United States. The odds are long; but it never hurts to dream, right?
However one day back in the spring of 1887, a man who actually had the job made a very strange wish … and he had no idea what Fate had in store for the child he wished it upon.
Grover Cleveland was a lot of things. He was the fattest guy elected president (until Taft shattered that record 12 years later). He was the only man to serve two non-consecutive terms, which forever screwed up the presidential numbering system. He was President #22, lost his reelection bid to President #23, and then was re-elected four years later. So was he #22 Again or #24? (After much debate, historians decided to call him #22 and #24. Go figure.)
Cleveland was from New York State and had a good friend named James.
In the mid-1880s, he sank a lot of money into a partnership that wanted to build a canal across Panama. (This was 20 years prior to when the U.S. actually did.) He needed Washington’s help in persuading Nicaragua (which controlled Panama back then) to let them dig. And that meant lots of lobbying with Congress and the Cleveland Administration.
So James decided to make a long visit to DC. He, his wife and their 5 year-old son Frank spent the first six months of 1887 in a rented a house on then-fashionable K Street.
In between all his wining and dining as he schmoozed Congressmen and bureaucrats, James also paid several purely social calls on his buddy Grover in the White House. How good friends were they?
A year earlier, the 49 year-old Cleveland had married Frances Folsom, his 21 year-old hottie ward. The union made a lot of presidential history: Cleveland was the first president to get married while in office, the only president to marry in the White House itself, and Frances became the youngest First Lady in American history. (Jackie Kennedy, who was 31, is #2.)
And there, on a prominent White House fireplace mantel, sat the splendid clock James had given the couple as a wedding gift. So when I say James and Grover were buddies, trust me, they were tight.
Anyway, back to our story.
James’ extended stay in Washington was coming to a close, so he hit Cleveland up for one small, but very personal favor: he wanted to bring young Frank to the White House to meet and talk with the president.
“Sure,” Grover said, “bring him by late tomorrow afternoon.”
So James and Frank went to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and waited outside the door of Cleveland’s second floor office.
Then Cleveland said something very odd. He patted the child’s head and said, “My little man, I’m making a strange wish for you. May you never grow up to be President of the United States.”
At age five, Frank already had a knack for selectively ignoring what he was told, and he apparently did so this time.
Because 46 years later, Frank was elected president. And re-elected. And re-elected. And re-elected.
Not only did Cleveland pick the wrong boy for his strange wish; he picked the one who served as president longer than anyone else!
How’s that for irony? O. Henry couldn’t have written a better twist.
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