6 Presidential Siblings and the Headaches They Caused

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Getty Images

Every aspect of the American presidency comes under intense scrutiny, but few parts of a president's life contain as many amusing, slightly sordid anecdotes as their siblings' behavior. When a new president takes office, his ne'er-do-well siblings receive a whole slew of opportunities for corrupt behavior, legal scrapes, and generally humiliating mayhem. Here are a few of our favorites:

1. Neil Bush: Opening Doors When Opportunity Knocks!

George W. Bush's younger brother Neil certainly hasn't done much to make his brother's political life any easier. Neil's been making the wrong kind of news since as far back as the 1980s, when as the son of Vice President George H.W. Bush he served as a director of Silverado Savings and Loan, which cost taxpayers an estimated $1 billion when it collapsed. He drew accusations of insider trading chicanery in 1999 when he made nearly $800,000 in three trades of Kopin Corporation stock in a single day; Bush had been a consultant for Kopin and sold on the day the stock's price soared as the result of good news from a client. Bush also had a somewhat dubious-sounding arrangement with Grace Semiconductor, a Chinese company with ties to former Chinese president Jiang Zemin. Despite admittedly not knowing anything about semiconductors, Bush had a deal to receive $2 million in stock and $10,000 for every board meeting he attended to discuss business strategies, a deal that led to claims of influence peddling.

These little business episodes were just appetizers for Bush's truly bizarre 2003 divorce proceedings. His wife Sharon Smith accused Bush of enjoying the company of high-priced escorts on business trips to Thailand and Hong Kong. (Bush's defense:  yes, he had sex with these strange women, but they might not have been prostitutes. They just showed up at his door, and he slept with them. No money changed hands.) Not content to let things die with that simple embarrassment of infidelity, Neil's friend John Spalding accused Sharon of pulling out Neil's hair for use in a voodoo curse. Sharon countered that she simply wanted the hair tested for evidence of cocaine use. In either event, the President couldn't have been too pleased as this saga played out in front of the media.

2. Roger Clinton: Codename "Headache"

Some presidential siblings wait until their brother takes up residence in the White House to start making trouble. Not Bill Clinton's half-brother Roger, though. By the time Bill had jumped from the Arkansas' governor's mansion to Washington, Roger had already spent a year behind bars for a 1984 cocaine distribution arrest. He then spent much of Bill's two terms trying to realize his dream of becoming an Elvis-like rock star with his band, Politics, and appearing in a string of abysmal movies that must have been almost as embarrassing for Bill as the cocaine arrest. (It's one thing to get in trouble for drug trafficking, but it's quite another to have the poor judgment to appear opposite Pauly Shore in Bio-Dome.) Despite his busy schedule, he still found time to get into an altercation with a stockbroker at a Knicks game in 1993 and later unsuccessfully lobbied for pardons for his drug-dealing chums. Bill actually included Roger's cocaine arrest in his flurry of pardons in 2001; Roger showed his gratitude by promptly getting arrested for drunk driving a month later. It's only fitting that Roger Clinton's Secret Service nickname was "Headache."

3 & 4. Hugh and Tony Rodham: Brothers in Harm

Despite the nickname, Roger might not even have been the biggest familial headache Bill Clinton had to deal with during his term. Instead, the Clintons introduced a new species of White House blight: bad presidential brothers-in-law. While Roger was pretty much a run-of-the-mill troublemaker, Hillary's brothers Hugh and Tony were bumbling power grabbers who kept making almost comical attempts to capitalize on their sister's high station. In 1999, Hugh, a former Florida public defender, and Tony, whose resume included work as both a private eye and a repo man, joined in on a $118 million business plan to process and import hazelnuts from the Republic of Georgia. There was a slight hitch though: the brothers' key connection in Georgia was a major political rival of Georgia's president (a key American ally). Bill and Hillary had to work in tandem with National Security Advisor Sandy Berger to talk the brothers out of their hazelnut empire. (We can only hope Roger Clinton would later defend his own antics with, "yeah, but I never attempted to politically destabilize former Soviet republics, did I?")

After this episode, Hugh seemed to start behaving. That image only lasted for a couple of years, though. When Bill Clinton issued the slew of pardons before leaving office in 2001, drug dealer Carlos Vignali and Glenn Braswell, who had peddled a fake baldness cure by mail, received a sentence commutation and a pardon, respectively. Somehow, Hugh Rodham pocketed $400,000 for offering legal help in acquiring the pardons. Although the transaction may have been perfectly legal, it certainly didn't appear all that kosher, and the Clintons suffered further embarrassment when the story broke.

5. Billy Carter: The Mother of all Brothers

Truly the standard by which all other presidential sibling's antics are judged, Billy burst onto the national scene as the boisterous, hard-drinking counterpoint to his pious, reserved brother Jimmy. Billy's early antics were amusing and fairly innocuous: he endorsed the legendarily terrible Billy Beer in an effort to make a little cash off of his hard-living image, and he made quips like, "My mother went into the Peace Corps when she was sixty-eight. My one sister is a motorcycle freak, my other sister is a Holy Roller evangelist and my brother is running for president. I'm the only sane one in the family."  While he worked hard to convey a roughneck bumpkin image to the press, Billy's confidantes claimed that he was in fact well-read and an able businessman who used his Southern bona fides to help his older brother's political cause. On the other hand, Billy's drinking turned from amusing to tragic as his fame grew.

In 1979, he had to go into rehab to curb his drinking. Around the same time he nearly lost his Georgia home to the IRS for failing to pay a six-figure federal income tax bill for 1978.

The real capper, though, came when Billy began consorting with Libya at a time when relations between the North African nation and the U.S. were starting to strain. In 1978 he made a trip to Libya with a group of Georgia businessmen who were interested in expanding trade with the country; Billy then hosted a Libyan delegation in Atlanta. When questioned about his dealings, Billy responded, "The only thing I can say is there is a hell of a lot more Arabians than there is Jews," a public-relations nightmare for which he later apologized. The damage got worse in 1980 when Billy registered as an agent of the Libyan government and received a $220,000 loan from the Libyans for helping facilitate oil sales. This transaction led to accusations of influence peddling and a Congressional investigation. In short, it was enough to make Jimmy Carter long for the days when his brother's antics only included such little quirks as urinating in public in front of a group of reporters and dignitaries.

6. Donald Nixon: Big Loans for Small Potatoes

Prior to 1960, nobody had even heard of Donald Nixon, even though his brother Richard had been VP under Eisenhower. When Richard launched his own presidential campaign against JFK, though, Donald found himself flung into the spotlight. Don was a restaurateur, and not a very good one. In 1954, he was running a chain of Nixon's drive-ins in Whittier, California and fell upon some tough financial times. In an effort to keep the business afloat, he accepted a $205,000 loan from Howard Hughes. "Big Don," as he called himself, never got around to paying Hughes back, and voters had to wonder why a defense contractor like Hughes was suddenly so interested in a chain of burger joints that just happened to be run by the Vice President's rotund brother. Whatever the reasoning, the loan wasn't enough, and the chain went under the following year.
Don caused a second stir in 1969 by once again joining his pal Hughes for a shadowy trip to the Dominican Republic. Nothing came of this episode, but it certainly didn't look good to have Big Don once again flitting about with Hughes. All of this might explain why the press later learned in 1973 that during Nixon had the Secret Service tap Big Don's phone calls lest he do something illegal, or even more problematic embarrassing to his brother.

HON. MENTION: Sam Houston Johnson

Lyndon Johnson's brother loved to have him some drinks. Once hammered, he'd get chatty with the press, a habit that LBJ eventually curbed by placing him under Secret Service surveillance. According to several sources, he'd occasionally pass a bad check, too. Sam Houston Johnson later wrote a book My Brother Lyndon in which he slammed LBJ as a bully who was a difficult boss. As Time put it, "A rivalry with the leader of the free world played hell with Sam's self-image."

History Vs. Bonus Episode: The Case of the Missing Colt .38

iHeartRadio
iHeartRadio

One morning in early April 1990, rangers at Sagamore Hill National Historic Site were walking past a display at the Old Orchard Museum when they noticed that something was amiss. The display contained Theodore Roosevelt’s uniform from his time with the Rough Riders in the Spanish-American War, as well as his Colt Model 1895 .38 caliber double-action revolver.

Or at least, the gun should have been there. But … it wasn’t.

Jake Rossen:
At the time, it was relatively simple just to lift the case up without setting any alarm and taking it.

That’s Jake Rossen, senior staff writer at Mental Floss.

Rossen: That's exactly what someone did.

This particular gun had a fascinating history, even before it landed in TR’s hands. It was manufactured in Hartford, Connecticut, in March 1895, and was sold to the U.S. government, after which it ended up on the battleship Maine, as ship property. It was still on board on February 15, 1898, when the ship exploded in Havana, Cuba. Hundreds of men lost their lives in the blast, which was blamed on the Spanish and helped to push America into the war.

The gun may have remained in a watery grave if not for TR’s brother-in-law, William S. Cowles, who was one of the commanding officers sent to Cuba after the explosion as salvage divers brought up what they could from the wreck.

Rossen: And one of those items was a Colt revolver. Knowing that TR was a weapons aficionado, he gave it to him as a gift.

When the Spanish-American War broke out in 1898, TR quit his job as assistant secretary of the Navy, signed up to fight, and shipped out to Cuba with his volunteer regiment. With him was the blue-barreled Colt with the checkered wood handle. Roosevelt used the weapon in the Battle of San Juan Heights.

Rossen: Apparently he was able to take aim and shoot at two enemies. One he missed; one, he later wrote, he hit, the man fell over and almost assuredly died. Roosevelt obviously treasured the weapon prior to using it. After he used it, undoubtedly he considered it probably even more significant.

Eventually, the gun was inscribed. On one side, it read “From the sunken battle ship Maine.” and on the other, “July 1st 1898, San Juan, Carried and used by Col. Theodore Roosevelt.

Rossen: He kept it in his personal possession until his death. And later on, when his property, his home, became a historic site and part of the National Park Service, it eventually, like a lot of his possessions, went on display.

Which brings us back to where we started: The empty display case at Sagamore Hill National Historic Site. I’m your host, Erin McCarthy, and in this bonus episode of History Vs., we’re going to explore this strange story, which I first found out about when I visited Sagamore Hill for the podcast. I knew immediately that we had to write about it, so I put Jake on the case.

McCarthy: So when something like this goes missing on national park land, what's the next step? What do they do?

Rossen: When a crime takes place in a national park or on a national park site, it's technically federal land. And so the government usually gets in touch with park rangers and they frequently pass it on to an investigative unit. And in this case the museum was able to reach out to park rangers who conducted an initial investigation and eventually it made its way to the FBI. The gun had actually been stolen once before back in the 1960s, and fortunately, whoever stole it seemed to get cold feet once they had taken it. The gun was found not far from the museum. It had been discarded. But this time was a little bit different in the sense that the museum really had no practical security features. There were no surveillance cameras. The glass case wasn't locked.

In fact, as one national park employee explained it to us, “The case could be lifted and the lock just popped open.”

Rossen: It wasn't going to be that difficult for someone determined to take the gun if they really wanted to.

McCarthy: So once the FBI got involved, where did they even start in the search for suspects?

Rossen: When stuff like this happens, investigators will often look at employees first. Because a lot of times this can be the result of an inside job. The FBI eventually realized that no employee was at fault.

With museum employees ruled out, and a security system being installed in the museum, the FBI began going to gun shows and approaching gun dealers to see if they had crossed paths with someone trying to sell the Colt. But they weren’t necessarily optimistic about finding the gun that way. The gun was really distinctive, and therefore hard to sell.

Rossen: I think they probably felt that whoever took it was probably taking it for their own personal collection. And in that case, obviously, there really weren't many leads to follow.

Which isn’t to say that the FBI didn’t get tips. They actually got a ton of them. In the time before the internet, they would get phone calls. When email came about, they got emails. And sometimes, the leads would be worth looking into.

Rossen: There was a rumor it had been seen in Europe. But really the only promising lead, which turned out really not to be promising at all, was the idea that a gun with the same serial number had turned up in a buyback program in Pennsylvania. But when they looked into it more thoroughly, they realized even though that gun had that same serial number, it was a different model gun. And so they were essentially back to square one. As the reward kept creeping up and eventually I think it reached somewhere around $8,100 and there's still no concrete leads, there's no one being enticed by a monetary compensation. And once you get 10 or 12 years into the gun being missing, again, this was back in 1990, you know, I imagine the FBI eventually felt it was time to maybe put this on the back burner.

But, 15 years after the gun went missing, there was finally a break in the case—one that may have been made possible by a divorce.

We’ll be right back.

 

More than 15 years after Theodore Roosevelt’s Colt Revolver went missing from the Old Orchard Museum at Sagamore Hill, one of the park rangers began receiving phone calls from a man who said he knew where the gun was.

That wasn’t necessarily unusual—they had gotten many similar calls before. What was unusual was that the man kept calling. He wouldn’t give his name, but he said he knew where the gun was—that he’d seen it wrapped in a sweatshirt. He was able to describe its engravings. He said that he wanted it returned to the museum—but he didn’t want to get anyone in trouble.

Rossen: The park ranger tried to plead with him and even told him, "Look, just put it in a box and drop it in the mail and that'll be that." But he couldn't really get through to the guy. Eventually, though, I think the man realized that he had to do something with the gun and he agreed to make contact with the FBI.

The man who had been calling was named Andy, and he lived in Florida.

Rossen: It turns out he had been seeing a woman, and the woman, who knew that Andy was a history buff, approached him one day and said, "Look, I've got this gun, it belonged to Teddy Roosevelt and, you know, you might want to take a look at it." Essentially Andy came to realize it was stolen, came to realize that actually it didn't belong to his girlfriend, but her ex-husband and her husband had essentially kept it around the house, sometimes wrapped up in a sweatshirt, sometimes tucked under the seat of a car.

McCarthy: So basically if that woman and her husband had not gotten divorced, the gun might still be missing?

Rossen: It's very possible, yeah.

The FBI approached Andy and asked him to retrieve the gun from his girlfriend.

Rossen: Again, he wanted to drag his feet a little bit and was reluctant about revealing the identity of his girlfriend, but being the FBI, they were rather persuasive with him.

The gun was retrieved and authenticated, and in 2006—16 years after it disappeared—it was returned to Sagamore Hill. Eventually, it took its place back in a case in the museum, one that was now much more secure.

As for the man who took the gun—we’ll call him Anthony T. He was charged with misdemeanor theft, which perhaps feels like a light sentence for someone who took something that belonged to a former president.

Rossen: It's interesting because if you look at heists involving valuable items, rare items, paintings, things of that nature, the punishment can be pretty severe. With something like Roosevelt's gun, even though there's been valuations placed on it that reached into the hundreds of thousands, I don't know that there's any definitive way of placing a price on it. And additionally, the federal government doesn't really insure these kinds of things. It seems the prosecutors looked at Anthony T.'s situation and realized that he was not by any means a professional thief, a career criminal, and decided to really let him off rather easily. He got probation, he had to pay a fine, and he had to perform a fair amount of community service.

Though the gun is back where it belongs, questions still linger. No one seems to know why Anthony took the gun, although investigators have posited that it was an impulsive act.

Rossen: So Anthony T was at the museum, and saw the gun, saw that there really probably wasn't any employee around, saw that the case could be easily manipulated. And it was a crime of opportunity. Actually, one of the investigators essentially described it as a kind of artifact shoplifting; something done on impulse and obviously something he came to regret. I think the irony really is the fact that Anthony, when he was charged with a crime, was charged with violating the American Antiquities Act of 1906, which is basically a law stating that “Hey, you know, you can't steal government property, items, or historic artifacts.”

The president who signed the American Antiquities Act into law? Theodore Roosevelt.

We’ll be back in a couple of weeks with another bonus episode of History Vs.

Credits

History Vs. is hosted by me, Erin McCarthy. This episode was written by me, with fact checking by Austin Thompson.

The executive producers are Erin McCarthy, Julie Douglas, and Tyler Klang. The supervising producer is Dylan Fagan. The show is edited by Dylan Fagan and Lowell Brillante. If you want to find out more about this episode, and Theodore Roosevelt, visit MentalFloss.com/historyvs.

History Vs. is a production of iHeartRadio and Mental Floss.

How Gracie Allen and the Surprise Party Got 1940s America Excited to Vote

Gracie Allen laughed her way to a presidential run in 1940.
Gracie Allen laughed her way to a presidential run in 1940.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

When President Franklin D. Roosevelt decided to run for an unprecedented third term, the competition seemed to stop trying. The GOP pinned their hopes on a political novice, Wendell Wilkie. The socialist and prohibition parties put their unflexed muscles behind relative unknowns. For FDR, the race seemed to be a lock. That is, until George Burns decided to shake things up.

In early 1940, the comedian hatched a scheme to have his wife and comic partner Gracie Allen run for office as the “Surprise Party” candidate. When Allen made her announcement on the couple’s radio show that February, she and Burns thought they’d get a few chuckles and some promotional buzz. To the pair’s shock, the idea caught on with the glum electorate.

It didn’t matter that Allen’s platform made no sense. One of her proposed programs involved offering correspondence courses for unemployed workers, so they could fail to find jobs in three or four different industries. She also refused to share the ticket with a vice presidential nominee, claiming she didn’t want any vice in the White House, and promised to settle the Florida-California border dispute.

Black and white image of women in formal attire
"Presidential hopeful" Gracie Allen (far right) with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt (center) at a March 1940 event.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Although the stunt was obviously a joke, “Vote for Gracie” buttons popped up around the country. Harvard students pledged their support for Allen’s campaign. A Minnesota town offered her its mayoral job. Allen and Burns’s modest stunt went as viral as anything could in pre-YouTube days. The pair even mounted a “real” campaign, with Allen embarking on a 34-city whistle-stop train tour that drew hundreds of thousands of supporters.

The silliness escalated. In May of 1940, the Surprise Party held its own convention. All 8000 “delegates” in attendance threw their support behind the Gracie Allen ticket. But shortly after the event, the comedian put the brakes on her gag campaign. In a rare serious moment, Allen acknowledged the country was in rough shape. Everyone had enjoyed the laugh, but it was time for the real candidates to get their messages out.

In the end, Roosevelt beat Wilkie, piling up over 27 million popular votes on his way to a third term. Oddly, several thousand Americans still cast their votes for a dark horse candidate who had ended her campaign months earlier: Gracie Allen of the Surprise Party.

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