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."

Amazon's Under-the-Radar Coupon Page Features Deals on Home Goods, Electronics, and Groceries

Stock Catalog, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Stock Catalog, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

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Why Does the Supreme Court Have Nine Justices?

Front row, left to right: Stephen G. Breyer, Clarence Thomas, (Chief Justice) John G. Roberts, Jr., Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Samuel A. Alito. Back row: Neil M. Gorsuch, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, Brett M. Kavanaugh.
Front row, left to right: Stephen G. Breyer, Clarence Thomas, (Chief Justice) John G. Roberts, Jr., Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Samuel A. Alito. Back row: Neil M. Gorsuch, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, Brett M. Kavanaugh.
Fred Schilling, Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States // Public Domain

Some facets of the U.S. government—like presidential terms and post offices—were written into the original Constitution after (often lengthy) deliberations by the Founding Fathers. The number of Supreme Court justices was not one of those things.

The document did establish a Supreme Court, and it stated that the president should appoint its judges; it also mentioned that a “Chief Justice shall preside” if the president gets impeached. Since it was left up to Congress to work out the rest of the details, they passed the Judiciary Act of 1789, which outlined an entire court system and declared that the Supreme Court should comprise one chief justice and five associate justices. As History.com explains, they landed on six because the justices would have to preside over federal circuit courts, one of which was located in each state. Traveling wasn’t quick or easy in the horse-and-carriage days, so Congress wanted to minimize each justice’s jurisdiction. They split the courts into three regions, and assigned two justices to each region.

According to Maeva Marcus, director of the Institute for Constitutional History at George Washington University Law School, the even number of justices was a non-issue. “They never even thought about it, because all the judges were Federalists and they didn’t foresee great disagreement,” she told History.com. “Plus, you didn’t always have all six justices appearing at the Supreme Court for health and travel reasons.”

Over the next 80 years, the number of Supreme Court justices would fluctuate for two reasons: the addition of federal circuit courts, and presidents’ partisan motives. John Adams and his Federalist Congress reduced the number to five with the Judiciary Act of 1801, which they hoped would prevent Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson from getting to fill a seat after he took office that year. By the following year, Jefferson’s Congress had passed another judicial act that returned the number of justices to six, and they upped it to seven after forming another circuit court in 1807.

The nation grew significantly during the early 19th century, and Congress finally added two new circuit courts—and with them, two new Supreme Court seats—during Andrew Jackson’s presidential tenure in 1837. Republican Abraham Lincoln then briefly increased the number of justices to 10 in order to add another abolitionist vote, but Congress shrunk it to seven in 1866 to keep Andrew Johnson from filling seats with Democrats. As soon as Republican Ulysses S. Grant succeeded Johnson, Congress set the number back to nine, where it’s remained ever since.

Sketched portraits of the U.S. Supreme Court justices through 1897.Popular and Applied Graphic Art Print Filing Series, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division // No Known Restrictions on Publication

In 1911, Congress did away with circuit courts altogether, so the number of Supreme Court justices stopped being contingent upon their expansion (though each justice does still oversee a region to help with occasional tasks). As for presidents shifting the number to serve their own goals, it’s now looked down upon as “packing the court.” When Franklin D. Roosevelt tried to increase it to 15 in the 1930s to push his New Deal through the Supreme Court, the Senate opposed the bill by a whopping 70 to 20 votes.

In short, the depth of the Supreme Court’s bench changed a lot in America’s early years not only because the country was expanding, but also because the federal government was still testing out its system of checks and balances. And though presidents do still appoint justices based on their own political party, we’ve gotten used to the idea that the Supreme Court is, at least ideologically, supposed to be unbiased. If Congress and the president kept up the habit of adding and subtracting justices at will, it would tarnish this ideal.

“If Congress increases the size of the Supreme Court for transparently partisan political reasons, it would cement the idea the justices are little more than politicians in robes, and that the court is little more than an additional—and very powerful—arm through which partisan political power can be exercised,” Steve Vladeck, a professor at the University of Texas School of Law, wrote for NBC News. “Indeed, that Congress has not revisited the size of the court in 150 years is a powerful testament to just how ingrained the norm of nine has become—and how concerned different political constituencies have been at different times about preserving the court’s power.”

[h/t History.com]