Remembering President Zachary Taylor

by Dave Mandl

Considering the brevity of his stay in the White House (just under seven weeks), Zachary Taylor's spectacular legend seems grotesquely exaggerated, like the work of some crazed pre-Civil War spin doctor. But if anything, the reputation of our twelfth president has been muted in the century and a half since his death. Surrounded by controversy and swirls of almost unbelievable rumor since before he learned to walk, Taylor was the philanderer that JFK could only dream of being, twice the lush that Benjamin Harrison ever was. On a slow day, he was a bigger crook than Nixon, a worse gambler than James K. Polk, and more of an insufferable whining brat than George Bush. Few people are aware of this today.

The story of exactly how he acquired the peculiar nickname "muskrat head" has unfortunately been lost, but we do know that he was plagued with it almost from birth. His hatred of the sobriquet only increased with the years, and until the day of his tragic premature death, the mere sight of a muskrat, or the mention of the animal's cursed name, was enough to send him into a fearful rage. When, at the young age of six, he was taunted with the epithet by two schoolmates, Taylor stunned his headmaster by chaining the hapless pranksters to a windmill and feeding them clods of grass until they nearly burst. It was only his millionaire father's hastily arranged donation to the school that avoided an early end of Zachary's academic career. Ten years later, on a trip to the zoo with a young lady that he was courting, the unfortunate girl innocently remarked, pointing to a family of muskrats, that they were "queer-looking beasts." This set Zack on a rampage, turning monkeys, tropical birds, an alligator, and an antelope loose, and hurling a peanut vendor's stand into a mud hole.

As a young adult, Taylor's frustration and anger with his hated moniker manifested itself in more complex ways. Constantly subjected to verbal abuse and challenged to prove himself to his scornful colleagues, he exhibited increasingly bizarre and flamboyant behavior, hiding from no one in particular inside wagonloads of rotten vegetables, painting his beard blue, and on one occasion even tarring and feathering one of the Taylor family's chickens. While his antics occasionally earned him a certain amount of grudging respect from his friends, they never took him seriously, and this incensed him even more. From being a mere "discipline problem" in boarding school, Zack later grew to be a full-fledged terror, setting a local paper mill on fire, luring unsuspecting girls into his "secret clubhouse" in the sub-basement of the Taylor home, and dressing like a giant purple butterfly on religious holidays. Seeing Zachary Taylor sober was something few people could claim to have done.

His election to the highest office in the land was, naturally, a fluke. In an effort to make something of himself and earn the respect of his friends, he half-heartedly declared his candidacy for president in the 1849 election. This was treated as a joke among his acquaintances, who suggested the campaign slogan "A muskrat in every pot." His opponent, Samuel Gates, was an enormously popular Governor who was running unopposed, and whose victory was a virtual shoo-in. Zachary's announced candidacy did nothing to change this; a poll taken two weeks before the election projected that 98.9% of the popular vote would go to Gates. And so it probably would have--if he hadn't been accidentally ground to a pulp in a wheat-threshing machine at a campaign stop on the eve of the election. Taylor was now the unopposed candidate, and he won handily.

Notoriously prone to laziness and sloth, Taylor had held office for a little over half a day when he gorged himself on fourteen pounds of French pastries and a jug of Indian corn whiskey and fell asleep face-down in the White House Rose Garden for eighty-six hours. Upon awaking (or, more accurately, being roused with a thorny branch by a terrified servant), he attempted his first official presidential act: the introduction of a bill requiring all visitors to the White House to do the Mexican Hat Dance with his 700-pound sister Rebecca while he, munching on his trademark sack of chocolate donuts, watched. Congress responded to this proposal with precisely zero Yea votes, and so began a stormy and strained relationship that was never to heal. In fact, President Taylor was cruelly razzed whenever he was foolish enough to attempt to address the House of Representatives or the Senate. A favorite prank of many senators was not to show up for the president's addresses at all, but rather to place muskrats, decked out in powdered wigs, in their own seats in their stead. This drove the president to such a state that he eventually began sending his wife in his place whenever he was required to give an address. Mrs. Taylor, of course, was treated with no more respect, once even having a dead muskrat's pelt hurled at her, accompanied by shouts of "At least this one isn't a stupid drunk."

Thus ridiculed from the first days of his presidency, Taylor nursed a monumental jealousy of his eleven predecessors, all of whom he was unfavorably compared to. Of these, he seemed to have a special hatred of George Washington (whom he referred to as "that bark-toothed Whig sissy"), and he spent much of his time trying to best the first president's celebrated accomplishments. Few Americans were amused, however, when he ordered every cherry tree east of the Mississippi to be burned to a stump, or hurled all seventy place settings of the Presidential silverware (paid for with a staggering $56,000 of taxpayer money) across the Potomac River. When asked by his disbelieving father whether he was the one responsible for these acts, Taylor replied, "What do you care, fuckhead? You'll be dead soon anyway."

His father's question was probably academic, since, had he not disposed of the White House silver in that way, he surely would have lost it gambling. In fact, within days of his taking office, Taylor had surrendered ten priceless paintings, a bedspread given to John Quincy Adams by the King of Spain, and most of the White House linen to pay off presidential poker debts. His gambler and loan-shark friends were also frequent guests to the White House, and they often helped themselves to the valuables that were generally left strewn around the premises by the drunken president. It was often said that, had Taylor served his full four-year term, there would have been nothing left in the White House but the toilet and a few scraps of the floral wallpaper that he loved so much. As it turns out, after Taylor's brief tenure there, there wasn't much more than this left, a fact that was hushed up at the very highest levels of government for fear of a violent popular rebellion.

One autumn day in 1850, Taylor was taunted for the last time. Upon arising for his daily sponge bath, he was greeted by a horrible spectacle. Overnight, his room had turned into a massive muskrat lair. The photo of his beloved family on his dressing table now depicted four of the slimy river-rodents instead. His favorite easy chair had been transformed into a massive hunk of mulch. Whiskers were sprouting from his own nose! Convinced that his drinking and gluttony had finally affected his mind, Taylor decided to put a quick end to his suffering: he ran to the bedroom window and flung his body onto the paving stones below. Not for a minute did he suspect that he had been the victim of an elaborate hoax perpetrated by trusted members of his cabinet.

The greatest indignity was still to come, however. Due to a mix-up at the cemetery, his grave was mistakenly crowned with the wrong tombstone, one belonging to a Belgian flintlock merchant. His family name: Mouskrat, French for "muskrat."

[Presented at the Unbearables' "Impeachment Proceedings," held at Eureka Joe, NYC, on Presidents' Day, 1994; also published in The National Poetry Magazine of the Lower East Side, LCD, and Meshuggah]

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