Each year, historian Anthony Pitch updates a little paperback book of his that's popular with Washington tourists. It's called "Exclusively Presidential Trivia", and it contains more than 650 brain-teasing questions and answers about U.S. chief executives. As Americans look ahead to the Presidents' Day holiday next month, VOA's Ted Landphair talked with Mr. Pitch about some of the more obscure facts about presidents.
Anthony Pitch has written scholarly books on subjects like the British burning of Washington in 1814. He's now two years into research on a book about the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.
But Mr. Pitch, a native Englishman and former journalist in Africa and the United States, also publishes simpler tourist guidebooks and maps, leads tours of Washington, and each year freshens his "Exclusively Presidential Trivia" book.
Anthony Pitch says such trivia as the reason Herbert Hoover was left out of a 1938 series of U.S. postage stamps about former presidents seems worthless. But he says it can stimulate the memory and provoke an interest in history.
Pitch: "I'm a voracious reader of subjects that fascinate me. The presidency fascinates me. History fascinates me. And so even when I'm doing my very serious research, I am able to extract from my deep research gems that I can put in later editions of the book."
Landphair: "All right, I'm going to give two or three examples. And I'm going to ask you to pause just a second before answering to give our listeners a chance to perhaps take a guess. "Here's the first one: Now we mentioned Herbert Hoover earlier. He was the thirty-first president of the United States. He served in the late 1920s and early 1930s. He was born in the state of Iowa. And you ask in the book, 'Why is that significant?'"
Pitch: "'Cause Hoover was the first president born west of the Mississippi River. That's why I find trivia fascinating, because from that little question and answer, you can now enlarge it into a perspective of how long it took for a president to arise from that far west."
Landphair: "Let's try another one. How many U.S. state capitals are named after presidents? And by the way, before you answer, I asked a colleague this question, and she guessed 40. It's not 40, is it?"
Pitch: "No, it isn't. The four cities that are state capitals named after presidents are Jefferson City, Missouri; Lincoln, Nebraska; Madison, Wisconsin; and Jackson, Mississippi."
Landphair: "Just four, and these are early presidents. We don't have any 'Clintons' or 'Bushes' yet."
Pitch: "Not yet, but there's such a strong movement afoot amongst partisan Republicans to name places after Ronald Reagan that you should get ready for a [Reagan] state capital."
Landphair: "What is the line of succession, I'm just going to take the first five people who would succeed the president if the president should die in office?"
Pitch: "This is very interesting. If the president dies, the vice president assumes the office. If he's not available, then it becomes the speaker of the House of Representatives. Next in line is the president pro tempore of the Senate. And after that, the secretary of state and the secretary of the treasury. And then it goes down in Cabinet rank.
Landphair: "And for many of our listeners, and many Americans, who may not know what the 'president pro tempore' is, that is the senior member of the majority party in the Senate, who often presides in the absence of the vice president. In this case, it would Robert Byrd of West Virginia, a Democrat."
Pitch: "Yes, and had Byrd not taken over recently, when the Republicans were in charge it was Strom Thurmond. That meant that you would have had a 97-year-old president if it had devolved [come down] to him while he was president pro tempore of the Senate."
Landphair: "Have you come up with any questions yet about President Bush?"
Pitch: "Yes. In the latest edition, I ask what his nickname was when he was at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. It's a very posh [exclusive] school. And he was nicknamed 'Lip,' because he wasn't he wasn't afraid to voice his opinions on any subject!"
Anthony Pitch publishes three other trivia books besides the one called "Exclusively Presidential Trivia". The others are about the White House, America's first ladies, and Washington, D.C..
By the way, if you're wondering about the answer to the first trivia item about President Hoover: He was left out of the series of stamps about ex-presidents in 1938, not because many people still blamed him for prolonging the Great Depression, but because the Postal Service had a strict rule that no living person, not even a president, could appear on a U.S. postage stamp.