A Love Story in 15 Presidents

Kim McMurray falls in love and, at the same time, sets out to read the biographies of every single U.S. president.

Illustration by Yael Levy

Ours was a courtship on cobblestones. When we first met, I was having an affair with George Washington. A student of politics, I had embarked on a challenge to read the definitive biography of every president in order. I wanted to find the common threads among them: the 43 men who claimed that position of such power and such loneliness. I blame Philadelphia for this project.

I had just learned that Washington was both incredibly arrogant and incredibly tall. So are you. On our first date, you informed me that you are a borderline genius. You were only half joking. You took me to a park that time forgot, where we could hammer on rocks and hear church bells. I said, “This could only be the work of aliens.” You mumbled something about periglacial drift and solifluction during the Pleistocene epoch.

By our second date, I learned that you could hold your liquor like John Adams. You kissed me and it tasted like hard apple cider.

You knew about my project and you disapproved. You said that my time would be better spent on fiction. I said that our Founding Fathers wouldn’t have spent so much time transcribing notes and conversations if it weren’t so damn important. But like John to my Abigail, you wrote me letters. Everyday, you sent me pages about current events and your own life.

This is what I learned about you: 1. You play the guitar. 2. You like your strawberries plain without any sugar on top. 3. You have immense faith in the U.N.

Jefferson was when we shared all of our secrets. Like our third president who died in debt, we bought dinners we couldn’t afford. We planned our own kind of domestic bliss — the kind that could only include political domination. We would be diplomats; we would be Congressmen. I would host lovely, informal dinners where we would bring the spirit of republicanism back into the executive branch. You didn’t much care about that part.

One time you told me that we weren’t like other people, the ones who could be content with a garden and a two week vacation every summer down at the shore. You said that we would be sadder than them because we would always aspire for something more than what we had — not in the material sense, but in the life sense. If we were Congressmen, we would dream about growing our own food and living off the land in coastal Maine. If we were dispensing food aid in a small African village, we would want to be ordering minions around at the State Department. At that time, I never thought you would aspire to something more than me.

Disaster struck at Madison, right around the War of 1812. Madison was small and weak. His constitution was frail. My brother was re-diagnosed with cancer. It was all the worst news I could hear over the phone in a McDonald’s in Upper Darby, PA. There was nothing else they could do. He was lucky enough to survive the first battle. Did you know that we lost the War of 1812? Only, to the American people, it kind of seemed like we didn’t.

This is what I kept thinking: I don’t know how to be a person who doesn’t have a brother.

In an act of supreme bravery for a boyfriend of only four Presidents, you met me at my family’s house. You braved the British navy, a string of neighbors carrying hot dinner platters, and my parents to lie next to me and tell me that everything would be okay. You said, “We will get through this.” I didn’t want to get through it; I was too scared of the other side. You said, “I love you.” To be more accurate, you sort of choked out the words. I breathed you in before I said it back: laundry detergent, sweat, coconut and chocolate from the Hello Dollies you brought over.

Next, you were the Era of Good Feelings. You were my island of happiness, telling me jokes under the covers. A neutron walks into a bar. So does a polar bear. I could hide out in your house and pretend that I would never have to figure out a new answer to the first date question, “Do you have any siblings?”

Illustration by Yael Levy

My brother got sicker and I got sadder. The island shrunk to a pebble of midnight phone calls. Then we stopped planning our futures out loud. Then we stopped planning anything at all. I was, dare I say it, your disenchanted public. Your party you lost control of. By John Quincy Adams, we were barely holding on. I found out Abigail was a terrible mom, and John put too much pressure on his son. The Presidency was never a good fit for JQA. Before his term, he was a brilliant diplomat. Afterwards he found his place in the House of Representatives. He couldn’t be what the Presidency required. For a while, I wondered the same thing about you.

But when the worst days came, you were exactly what I required. When I didn’t want to wake up, you pulled me closer. When I thought I heard my brother’s voice only to remember all over again, you made me watch dumb internet videos until I smiled.

You stayed by my side as I hid from the world. Did I ever tell you about Jackson’s inaugural ball? It was the best party anyone in Washington had ever seen: wine in tubs, and ice cream on the White House lawn. What no one talks about is that days before the big party, his wife Rachel dropped dead in the street, right after she picked up her gown. After greeting his guests, Jackson snuck out and walked over seven miles to get a drink in peace. I didn’t have to walk that far because you stayed in bed with me and watched Megashark vs. Crocosaurus.

I was in pieces and I couldn’t be put back together over night. I cried in secret. I cried at Hallmark commercials, photographs, Paul Simon songs. I cried in the morning and I cried at night. One time, I cried sitting on a city sidewalk. I cried thinking about all the things I would never do. I cried in bed when you weren’t there. Martin van Buren wasn’t a very confident man. (Can you blame him? He came after Jackson who was shot in the chest, stopped the bleeding with his bare hand, and then killed a man over a horse bet) Van Buren was always waiting for everything to fall apart, to be exposed for what he really was: a bartender’s son, a nobody. I was waiting for everyone to realize I wasn’t as strong as they thought.

I started to make progress around Presidents Harrison and Tyler (Harrison doesn’t get his own biography because he only lasted a month in office. That will teach you not to make a 4 hour long speech in the rain without an overcoat). Tyler was never supposed to be president. I was never supposed to be a girl without a brother and you were never supposed to be my touchstone, but we both adapted. Little by little, I got through movies without bawling. I held your hand when I felt a Panic coming on. I only cried to Bright Eyes songs. We started having fun again. One time, we did everything there is to do in Manhattan in one day. Another time, we leaned against a white picket fence watching fireworks.

By President Polk, all I wanted to do was leave the pain behind. I wanted to keep moving as fast as I could in one direction — toward you. Across the Rocky Mountains, deep into the California desert, and all the way to the Pacific Ocean, where you went, I went. Manifest Destiny could have been my mantra. When Polk was young, he developed kidney stones. Without any anesthesia, the doctor cut him open and fished the stones out with a spoon. Nothing in our relationship compares to that, but really, can you imagine?

I could feel you slowly pulling away so I pushed harder, crossing boundaries I was never authorized to cross. I am talking about the Rio Grande. Some scholars think that President Taylor could have prevented the Civil War. He was a slave-owning southerner who opposed slavery in the new territories, and before her early death his daughter ran away with Jefferson Davis. It is easy to wonder in retrospect, if I had let you go, would you still be mine?

The pressure built to a powder keg. I was scared that if I lost my touchstone, I would fall apart. I was scared of secession under my watch. We can’t blame it all on the doughface presidents — there wasn’t one thing that caused our demise. There were small fights, ambitions, freedom. There was geography. There were all the times I still cried and needed you to save the day, and all of the times that you couldn’t. I was waiting for the explosion. When it came, it was quiet.

Illustration by Yael Levy

It is fitting that we ended with James Buchanan, our country’s only bachelor President (though not the only one with a broken heart). I thought our history, our letters, our sadness made us different but we broke up like everyone else. You said that you needed to be alone for a while, to find out if you could be happy by yourself. I said, please don’t do this. I’ll work harder. I’ll be happier. You are breaking my heart.

You said, sleep over. I still want to hold you tonight. I said, don’t touch me.

You said, I love you very much. You must have said it a thousand times that night but it never sounded like the first time. I said I need to go.

I breathed you in for the last time and there wasn’t a trace of Hello Dollies.

Buchanan had a sordid love story once too. He was in love with a wealthy girl named Anne. They were engaged and everything was going swimmingly until evil tongues started wagging. They said that young James preferred men, or that he was marrying her for her money, or maybe they chided her for the weird way he looked at people, a combination of being far-sighted in one eye and near-sighted in the other. She ended it in a letter and try as he might, Buchanan couldn’t change her mind. Anne died a few months later in what her doctor called the first instance of dying from hysteria.

There is a political theory that says that Presidents are shaped by the battles they face. Presidents can only be Great Men when they have something to fight and something to fight for. Those who serve through times of peace and prosperity are barely remembered; they hang out towards the bottom of presidential rankings, coming in right above those who couldn’t pick a side. Without the Civil War, maybe Lincoln would have been just another guy with a hat? Sometimes I think that our relationship was like that. When you needed to be, when the country was crumbling down around us, you were great. When things got back to normal (or as normal as life can become after a tragedy), you didn’t want to be that man anymore.

I loved you until the Civil War. Now I just have to get through Reconstruction.

Illustration by Yael Levy

Kim McMurray lives in Philadelphia, PA. When she was younger, she thought that The Sound of Music ended with Maria marrying Captain von Trapp. It wasn't until middle school that she discovered the second VHS tape where the family has to hide from the Nazis at Maria's old abbey. She believes that this explains a lot about her current world view. She has a blog and you can email her.