[Originally published January 25, 2010.]
“There is no honorable way to kill, no gentle way to destroy,” said Lincoln. “There is nothing good in war except its ending.”
Then he took a spear in the back, leaving Kirk and Spock to defeat Genghis Khan by themselves. So forget the reach advantage, the wrestling, the rail-splitting or the militia training: Our “greatest” president would not win in a fight with the other presidents. He doesn’t have enough fire.
And you should want that fire in a commander in chief. A man can “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution” with a legal team, or with Apache attack helicopters—he can even be great doing it. But say the Russian foreign minister calls the Constitution a slut at a U.N. conference afterparty. If a president makes him swallow those words and a few teeth, is that not greatness, too?
So let’s get it on: 43 men enter, one man leaves. No “over the top rope” battle royale, because Taft and Cleveland would have an unfair advantage. All men are at the physical peak of their presidency, because Wilson deserves a chance. No firearms.
We are sticking with the classics: 43 men on a remote island, forced to fight to the death in a series of individual battles with a soundtrack by Stan Bush. It will be called Beyond Capitoldome, and it will cost $49.95 on pay-per-view. Who wins?
Some wouldn’t have a chance. Madison’s idea of exercise was racing Dolley back and forth on their front porch; he was 5’4" and weighed around 100 pounds. Taft could literally eat him (no holds barred) and still have room for Benjamin Harrison (5’6"). Harding was prone to nervous breakdowns, and getting Van Buren’s dura on his white golf pants might trigger one. William Harrison and Reagan are tough, but too old to last the night.
Some would surprise you. FDR was all muscle from the waist up—strong enough to pull himself between floors of his Hyde Park home on a trunk elevator. He was good in the water—at the treatment center he set up in Georgia, you can stand in the pools where he played Marco Polio with sick kids—and he could be truly, horribly mean. Franklin could lurk in a shallow pool, breathe through a cigarette holder and pounce on a thirsty Buchanan. Millard Fillmore just looks like he could take a punch.
Your eyes will be on the soldiers, the men who danced a slow jam with Death and walked away with his cell number. You might be disappointed. Some of the Civil War guys weren’t formally trained—in the mid-19th century, if you brought enough guys, you got to be a general. Hayes took five bullets, making him the 50 Cent of presidents, but it’s not clear if that makes him a great warrior or an awful one. Eisenhower had guts, but by the White House years they were inflamed or falling out. For all their fighting spirit as commanders, Grant and Taylor never challenged Lee or Santa Ana to Indian leg wrestling.
And to win it all, it comes back to that fire: the raw endurance and ability to struggle for hours on end and the horrible will to break a whimpering Franklin Pierce’s neck, because it’s something that needs to be done. You need to be LBJ with more combat training, or Washington with more of a mean streak (though George did have the occasional militia member killed for insubordination. I’d pick him to finish third). There are no Cinderella stories on Death Island. It comes down to the top seeds.
Theodore Roosevelt had bloodlust. If you had an hour in the Bronx Zoo with a Gatling gun you wouldn’t be able match the stuffed head collection in his house. Fiercely determined, he transformed from sickly youth into a brick outhouse, a man who boxed in the White House, ran up every staircase and hit friends with sticks for fun (singlesticks!). He picked fights with bigger opponents, in both politics and Dakota Territory bars, and he avenged defeats. Such was his jones for shooting Spaniards, he quit a government job to do it. The roughest men in a very rough era were proud to call him colonel. And if you need some X factors, he’s young, and he spent his adult life trying to impress his dead dad. That’s Disney-level motivation.
Andrew Jackson killed Indians, the British, and Charles Dickinson. The best shot in Tennessee had a dispute with Jackson, so in the 1808 equivalent of Judge Judy, a duel was arranged. By some accounts, Jackson allowed Dickinson to shoot him in the chest. Then, holding his arm against the wound while his shoe filled with blood, he carefully aimed and blew Dickinson’s guts out—all because of a few hundred bucks and a race horse. Jackson is the only competitor with a confirmed kill outside of war, and he did it in a way that makes Harry Callahan look like the Dalai Lama.
He pulled himself up from dirt. He never had a father. He was a P.O.W. during the Revolution (at 12) and an orphan shortly after. His temper and passion were legend, and he’d kick the crap out of anyone who besmirched his wife. He’d be old (61 as president). He’d be dinged up. But no one would want to fight Andrew Jackson. He’s the George Steele of politics.
The sun sets. The tide goes out. Coolidge finally succumbs to the flint tomahawk buried in his chest and becomes eternally silent. Two men face each other on a beach. Who wins?
Heading to a campaign speech in 1912, Roosevelt was shot by an anarchist. The bullet was slowed by his overcoat, a copy of the speech, and a glasses case, but it lodged in his chest. It sounds like a cartoon, but you can actually see the speech, the case and the coat at the Roosevelt birthplace in Manhattan. TR responded by talking the crowd down from killing the attacker. Then he gave the speech. That’s tough.
Leaving a funeral at age 67, Jackson survived the first presidential assassination attempt when the insane shooter had two misfires at close range. Jackson responded by trying to club the shooter to death with his cane.
Roosevelt, your champion on paper, had mellowed. Jackson never did. Put $20 on Old Hickory. And if you don’t, pray to your respective deity that Andrew Jackson never finds out about it.