The Nth Resident President

Monday, February 16th, ©2009 Marcus Brooks

A CNN article about presidential popularity numbered Lincoln among “42 former White House occupants.” That’s a number I had to investigate!

History says Obama is the 44th president, so CNN’s count seems wrong from the start. But no, Grover Cleveland served two non-contiguous terms, so he counts as presidents 22 and 24. So there were only 42 presidents before Obama, even though Obama’s presidency is the 44th.

But CNN isn’t off the hook yet. The government moved to D. C. from Philadelphia in 1800. So the nation’s second president, Adams, was the first resident of the building we call the White House. That seems to make it only 41 former White House occupants, not 42.

What’s more, the building wasn’t publicly called “the White House” until Madison’s presidency (the fourth). In school I read that Dolly Madison had it painted white after the British burned it in 1812. Even then it was officially “the Executive Mansion” until the 26th presidency, when Theodore Roosevelt put “White House—Washington” on his stationery.

So considerably fewer than 42 former presidents would have said “the White House” if someone asked where they lived during their terms. (Even if you count Truman, who lived in Blair House for much of his term.)

Even so, CNN might have it right. If you look up “White House” in the dictionary, one definition you are likely to get is “executive branch of the U. S. government.” So in current speech, it might makes some sense for “the White House” to refer generally to all U. S. administrations, including Washington’s.

So was George Washington the retroactive occupant of some metonymic White House? I think it’s a stretch.

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