Donald Trump is the Fattest President in 100 Years

Is Donald Trump the fattest President in 100 years? This is, in some ways, not an important question, and it’s cruel to shame people about their weight. Yet, Trump himself thinks it’s very important to judge people on the basis of weight, and he would clearly be infuriated to learn that everyone knows he’s the fattest President in 100 years, which might distract him from killing us all and ruining the world for a little while. So let’s investigate this.

According to his fake medical records, released by handing a grifter a piece of paper on a TV show, Trump is 6’3″ and weighs 236 pounds. This would give him a body mass index (BMI) of 29.5, just shy of the range considered obese (which starts at 30). Where would that place him among U.S. Presidents? Well, it’s tough to get reliable data about weight for Presidents before about WWII, but we can be pretty certain that William Howard Taft was fatter; Wikipedia tactfully notes that “Taft is remembered as the heaviest president; he was 5 feet 11 inches (1.80 m) tall and his weight peaked at 335–340 pounds”. Taking the upper end of that estimate, Taft’s peak BMI would have been about 47.4, which would make him “very seriously obese” according to the Wikipedia BMI page. Trump is nowhere near that, so that gives us a clear limit—104 years ago, there was definitely a fatter President.

What about the intervening century? Only two people strike me as contenders; everyone else was pretty obviously thinner than Trump. Some guy looked into Presidential BMI a few years ago; that writer doesn’t cover everyone, and I think a few of his findings are a little off, but I think he’s close enough on most Presidents that we can safely rule them out. (Harding and Coolidge, the two post-Taft guys he leaves out, were not obviously overweight, either). But for two Presidents I wondered if he was correct.

The first is Bill Clinton, who according to a Phil Hartman impersonation loved to eat fast food. But a quick glance at some photos indicates that he was thinner than I remembered. Here he is in his famous Arsenio Hall appearance; he looks reasonably svelte. In this New Republic article about his health habits, the highest weight they mention is 216 lbs, which, given his 6’2″ height, would indicate a peak BMI of 27.7—overweight, but still shy of Trump.

The other guy is Lyndon Johnson, who is listed in the blogpost above as weighing 200 lbs. But LBJ’s weight fluctuated a lot; he was naturally kind of paunchy but vain enough to diet constantly (and sometimes, apparently, to wear a girdle). One book puts his peak weight as high as 220 lbs; another as “more than 240”. LBJ is usually listed as 6’3.5″ tall (I suspect he was measured very carefully so Lincoln could keep the height record, at 6’4″), so with a weight of, say, 245 lbs, that would give him a maximum BMI of 30.2.

Does that mean LBJ takes the crown from Trump? Is Trump merely the fattest President in the last half century? Not necessarily. Trump’s height and weight records are probably lies. I’m saying that not just because they are claims that Trump made, and not just because any sane person would clearly have released actual medical records if he wasn’t lying, but because the empirical evidence suggests it. Weight changes over time and is difficult to estimate from afar, but Trump’s claim to weigh 236 lbs was met with some healthy skepticism, as in this Washington Post article. It seems plausible that he weighs at least a little more, perhaps in the 240-250 range. But amazingly, the better case has to do with his height. As that article shows, photos of him standing next to other people strongly suggest that he is not 6’3″; Politico also found his driver’s license, which says that he’s 6’2″. Apparently he gets quite angry when people say that he’s 6’2″, but there you have it: Donald Trump is 6’2″. He’s not 6’3″; he’s 6’2″. To be clear: That’s 6’2″ for Donald Trump’s height, which is not 6’3″, and instead is merely 6’2″.

So, even if we don’t change the weight, adjusting to his actual height gives him a BMI of 30.3, nudging him into the obesity range and just past peak-fatness LBJ. When you consider that he probably actually weighs more, the case is that much stronger; at just 240 lbs, he’s up to 30.8. It seems safe to say it: By BMI, Trump is the fattest President in 100 years.

One question remains: Is BMI a good way to measure this? It’s a famously limited metric; a person in great shape might weigh a lot because of muscle mass, so you often get misleading results—e.g., peak Barry Sanders reads as obese on this metric, which is clearly not correct. Could it be that Trump is actually really healthy? After all, in the ludicrous doctor’s note he released during the campaign, the author claims that, “If elected, Mr. Trump, I can state unequivocally, will be the healthiest individual ever elected to the Presidency.” Is there something to this?

No. Obviously not. To find a healthier President among the other 44 you have to go back… one, to Barack Obama, who is 16 years younger and still plays basketball on a regular basis. Is this answer a coincidence, or perhaps too partisan? Well, you could also go back… two, to George W. Bush, who is also younger than Trump even though he left office almost a decade ago, and who famously liked to work out all the time. Even Bill Clinton, who is also younger than Donald Trump, was jogging to those McDonald’s. Trump apparently loves fast food just as much, and in that Dr. Oz appearance with the fake medical records, we have this exchange:

OZ: How do you stay healthy on the campaign trail?

TRUMP: It’s a lot of work. When I’m speaking in front of 15 and 20,000 people and I’m up there using a lot of motion, I guess in its own way, it’s a pretty healthy act. I really enjoy doing it. A lot of times these rooms are very hot, like saunas, and I guess that is a form of exercise and, you know?

He thinks public speaking is a form of exercise, because he moves his arms around and it is sometimes hot in the room. This is not a man who works out, or, indeed, fully grasps the concept of working out. So, while it is possible that the use of BMI unfairly maligns the fitness of some Presidents, it clearly barely scratches the surface of Trump’s unhealthiness.

Conclusion: No matter how you look at it, Trump is the fattest President of the last 100 years. Spread the word.

 

 

P.S.: He’s also 6’2″.

Don’t Vote Third Party Unless You’re Comfortable Helping Trump

Even though Donald Trump is one of the least popular major party Presidential candidates in American history, a lot of people are still considering voting third party, probably because Hillary Clinton is also quite unpopular. I have some friends in that camp, people who can see that Trump is manifestly unfit to be President, but whose politics are just too different from Clinton’s for them to feel comfortable voting for her. But if the idea of Trump having the power to launch nuclear strikes genuinely bothers you, voting third party is a really bad idea, because in our political system these votes virtually guarantee that your least-preferred candidate will reap the benefits.

The basis for the claim here is pretty simple. Imagine there are three candidates running, and your order of preference for these candidates looks like this:

  1. Alice Good
  2. Bob Meh
  3. Carol Bad

In other words, you really want Alice to win, and you’d really like Carol to lose. We don’t know how you feel about Bob—maybe he’s an uninspiring technocrat, maybe he’s a corrupt tool of the system—but either way he’s better than Carol. If Alice has a shot at winning, this is an easy election; you just vote for Alice. But if Alice has no chance—in other words, if she’s like nearly every third party candidate in American history—then voting for her basically just makes it easier for Carol to win.

This quickly becomes obvious if you think about it numerically. Say there are 100 voters, 46 for Carol, 45 for Bob, and 9 for Alice—and the Alice voters all have the order of preference above. If they vote for Alice, Carol wins, netting them the worst possible outcome. If they compromise and vote for Bob, Bob wins, and they get a better outcome. And crucially, these are the only two possible outcomes: Either you get Carol, or you get Bob. There is no scenario in which Alice wins. It’s as though you’ve got an election between Bob and Carol, but instead of going to the polls, a lot of people who prefer Bob go watch a basketball game. Obviously this will help Carol, because Alice is essentially LeBron James—much more fun to support than Bob, but not capable of winning this election.

In short, voting for a third party candidate who cannot win inevitably ensures that your least-preferred candidate has a better shot at winning, because you would otherwise have distributed your vote to your second-most preferred candidate. Now, there are a few factors that could sway the math a little: If Alice and Bob have pretty even chances of winning, or if you dislike Bob and Carol equally, then a vote for Alice could still make sense. But in this election neither factor applies.

Third party candidates never win

The best performance by a third party candidate in U.S. history is probably Teddy Roosevelt’s in 1912, when he ran with the idiosyncratic Bull Moose party. He managed to beat the Republican candidate, William Howard Taft, but that was just good enough for him to lose to Woodrow Wilson by 14 percentage points and 347 electoral votes. Together he and Taft got just over 50% of the vote, but because they split it between them, Wilson won, even though he was in the Carol Position for a pretty large number of Americans. And this was, again, the best a third party candidate ever did.1

In that situation, voters really did have to deal with a difficult decision, since Taft and Teddy each had a strong claim to be the most electable candidate. But for most of American history, the choice has been pretty easy, because third party candidates don’t even remotely stand a chance. There have been 57 Presidential elections in U.S. history; third party candidates have won none. Most of the time third party candidates don’t earn any electoral votes; the last time it happened was 1968, when George Wallace got 46 (145 shy of the guy who came in second).2

Gary Johnson and Jill Stein will not buck this trend. A few weeks ago when Trump seemed doomed, he was polling at about 36%; Johnson is currently at about 9%, and Stein has never been as high as 5%. FiveThirtyEight gives Johnson a <0.1% chance of winning the election; Stein is not even on the chart. When a race gets close, the calculus involved in the Alice/Bob/Carol scenario gets very complicated; you have to balance likelihood against preference, and it’s not clear how you should weight either. But in most U.S. Presidential elections, the race is not close, and it definitely isn’t in this one.

Trump can lose and still win

In an election where no candidate hits a majority of the electoral votes (270 these days), the House of Representatives chooses the President from the existing pool of candidates. The House is currently Republican, and has shown no courage or even really desire when it comes to breaking with Trump. And a third-party candidate wouldn’t have to do that well to create a scenario like this. This map shows an example:


Click the map to create your own at 270toWin.com

 

This is basically the 2012 map, but Trump has picked off Florida and Ohio, which are currently fairly close. Johnson has won Nevada, Colorado, and New Mexico, three states where he’s doing pretty well at the moment. And as a result, Clinton falls just shy of 270 electoral votes, meaning the whole thing goes to the House, and Trump is our next President. This is not an especially likely scenario, since the best Johnson is doing in any of those states (as of this writing) is about 18% in New Mexico. It is also true that some states are more secure than others for Clinton, so if you live near enough people who do the right thing, your inaction will cause less harm. But the general point is that good electoral performance by Johnson or Stein—the purpose of voting for them—has a little extra capacity to help Trump become President, whether or not it gets them remotely closer to winning the election.

What about other reasons to vote third party?

My impression based on the people I know who are enthusiastic about Johnson or Stein is that they are well aware that neither candidate will win. Instead, they cite a bunch of other reasons to vote third party. These are often pretty compelling on their own merits: It’s important to qualify for federal matching funds.3 It’s also important to change the political discourse and introduce new ideas—I would consider Bernie Sanders’s primary run a major success for progressive politics even though he didn’t get the nomination, just because of how it changed the party’s discourse and policies. The question is whether these considerations outweigh the risks involved in giving Trump an easier path to the White House.  I say no, because I believe that the ethics of voting are almost entirely about outcomes.

In other words, I think the only ethical consideration you should make when you vote (assuming the election is more or less free and fair, like ours are)4 is the effect your vote will have on determining who wins the election. If your vote helps the better candidate win, it is ethical; if not, it is not. I’m not arguing that either candidate needs to be great, or even decent: Two terrible people might run, and in that case you just have to pick the one who is the least bad. One person will become President when the election is over, and if you used your vote on a doomed candidate, then you made it more likely that the President will be, by your own estimation, worse.

As you probably know if you’re this far into this piece, Trump is a uniquely terrible candidate for President. He’s the most overtly racist candidate since George Wallace in 1968, and by any reasonable measure the least qualified major party candidate in the history of the country.5  Whatever you think about Clinton, this is not a case of “both are crooks” or “they’re all the same”.6 Clinton is basically a run-of-the-mill Democrat; we have those all the time, and things stay pretty ordinary. Trump is a vindictive, corrupt, violent, incompetent man with no knowledge of policy and no interest in anything but confirming delusions of his own greatness. If he ran against George W. Bush, I think we would have a duty to vote for Bush, whom I consider a war criminal. If he ran against Nixon, I think we’d have a duty to vote for Nixon, who was forced from office for criminal corruption. Whatever you dislike about Clinton, Trump is far worse, and that means there is a strong ethical imperative to keep him out of office—as only a lot of votes for Clinton can do.

You will still have a conscience on November 9

The phrase that really stands out to me in a lot of the pro-Stein and pro-Johnson rhetoric I’ve seen is “voting my conscience”. The idea is that if, like many people, you think both Trump and Clinton are bad candidates—or even bad human beings—then you can’t personally bring yourself to cast a vote for either of them.

I think this is an oddly solipsistic way to think about conscience. Your personal relationship to your vote will not affect anyone else in the world; other people won’t even know how you voted unless you tell them. But the winner of the election will affect a lot of people. Millions of people will be harassed and deported, or they won’t. NATO will collapse, or it won’t. The press will remain free from government crackdowns, or it won’t.

If you help the worse candidate win, everything that happens after election day is, in small part, on you. The ethical choice you make in the ballot box can only go one of two ways: You help Clinton or you help Trump. If you’re passionate about Libertarian ideas or Green Party values, you can advocate for those things for the rest of your life, but those parties are not going to win on election day. Johnson and Stein aren’t a way not to choose; they’re just the most active way to pretend that you didn’t. If you recognize that Trump should not be President, vote to keep him out of office.

 


Notes

1. Of course, I don’t actually know how voters would have ranked the three candidates, but since Taft and Teddy were ideologically similar (and had even worked together closely in the past) I think it’s probably fair to assume that a primary preference for one usually indicates a secondary preference for the other. In general terms, this is a major reason why the two party system is so stable in America: Anyone who runs third party basically ensures that the voters ideologically closest to him will lose, since that’s where he’s splitting the vote.

2. In a few scattered cases, people got one vote from a faithless elector. These include John G. Hospers (1972), Ronald Reagan (76), Lloyd Bentsen (88), and John Edwards (04). Of those, only Hospers was really a third-party candidate, but my strategic use of the word “earn” above was meant to exclude this weird, beside-the-point scenario. 

3. I hear people mention this a lot, but some cursory investigation shows it to be a little more complicated than it sounds—e.g., Jill Stein got matching funds during the primaries. 

4. I say “more or less” because of things like voter ID laws and the disenfranchisement of felons. These are serious issues, but I don’t think they contradict the broader argument of this post. 

5. As far as I can tell, there are only two other candidates who were neither elected to any office nor held an important post in the military. One is Horace Greeley, who briefly held office in Congress by appointment, helped found the Republican Party, published Marx and Engels in America, and was a longtime activist. The other is Wendell Willkie, again a longtime activist. He’s probably the closest thing to Trump on a resume basis, but at least he had a law degree and was against the KKK decades before Trump created the coalition they currently enjoy. 

6. As you might imagine, I don’t think that’s ever true; one candidate is always at least marginally better than the other. This was a major talking point about Al Gore and George W. Bush during 2000—”What does it matter? They’re the same!”—and then one guy won a Nobel Prize battling climate change and the other started the Iraq War. Does anyone really think those biographies would simply have swapped if Gore had won Florida? 

Nice Work If You Can Get It

One of the oldest battles in American political rhetoric is the one that pits bold outsiders against experienced statesmen. This election has taken that to such a ludicrous extreme that it put me in mind of a project I did back when I was first learning how to build network diagrams.1  The idea was to see Presidential employment relationships: Which Presidents held major jobs under other Presidents? Who employed the most other Presidents? The results tell us a little about the outsider/insider battle at the highest level of insiderness.

When you start to dig into this stuff, a lot of ambiguous situations arise. For instance, Ulysses S. Grant was Commanding General of the United States Army under both Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson, but Johnson, characteristic of his usual interest in skilled governance, national unity, and racial progress, hated him and constantly tried to get him fired.2 Should that count? What about William McKinley, who was a major in the U.S. Army during the Civil War? Technically that means he worked for Lincoln and Grant—should that count? In the end I settled on an imperfect but easy compromise: I took any job that got its own category in the sidebar of the President’s Wikipedia page. Grant’s has his Commanding General post; McKinley’s major post doesn’t make the cut.

Here are the results:

PresidentialEmploymentSimpler

The nodes here are colored by political party and sized by betweenness centrality.3 I’ve arranged everything here to show the major clusters. What immediately stands out is that the early guys are incredibly interconnected. John Quincy Adams worked for four different Presidents (ambassador for Washington, Adams with no Q, and Madison, and Secretary of State for Monroe) and hired another, Harrison, who had also worked for his dad. Recently a lot of people, including Barack Obama, have said that Hillary Clinton is the most qualified person ever to run for President, and while I think the basic gist of this is true (she’s as qualified as anyone in the last hundred years), you just can’t beat those early guys. They just insisted on hiring each other to do everything (and that’s before you factor in things like writing the Constitution).

Beyond that, you see a couple of other groups: The Lincoln Republicans, a group I call the Immigration Era Republicans,4  and then the American Empire guys—the WWI and WWII Presidents, followed by the Republican group that dominated the rest of the 20th century. It’s obvious that some things are off here; W. is clearly in the same political club as Nixon (who contributed a lot of his staffers) and George H.W. Bush (who contributed a lot of his DNA, education, baseball teams, etc.). And there are other, slightly more tenuous connections as well: The Harrisons are related, albeit separated by a generation; JFK’s dad worked for FDR; Taylor prosecuted the Mexican-American War for Polk.

Here’s another issue with this data: You may have noticed that the edges in that network are multicolored. That’s to show the nature of the job held, as detailed in this key:

EdgeKey

Most of these are probably fine (and note that “governor” only refers to appointed governorships, like when McKinley made Taft Governor-General of the Philippines), but ambassadorships are doing a ton of work here.5  Buchanan, for instance, was the ambassador to Russia under Jackson at the early stage of his bafflingly long (considering how it ended) career in national politics, which is the only reason the President in the late 1850’s is connected to George Washington. Arguably these aren’t substantial enough roles to be included in this kind of graph; that’s what happens when you let Wikipedia make the decisions for you. Still, in broad strokes, I think this really shows you something about the internecine operations of power at our highest level, and its capacity to reset every so often.

One last image: Here’s everything laid out chronologically. This time the edges are directed, so you can see, based on the arrows, who hired whom.

PresidentialEmploymentOrdered

Here the unending nature of that first group really becomes clear. If you worked for George Washington, you stood a surprisingly good chance of being in the same org chart as the guy who would one day lose seven states to secession at the start of the Civil War. You also see that the groups overlap chronologically, with Wilson and FDR crossing the 1920’s Republicans, and the Taylor/Fillmore pair interrupting the Founders’ lovefest. You also get the weird anomaly of Hoover hiring a guy who had already been the President; when he needed a Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, who better to choose than the man appointed governor of a territory by the man whose Vice President later appointed that same man governor of a territory? (Taft was also a judge and solicitor general under Ben Harrison—you just couldn’t keep Presidents from hiring him, even decades after he was done being President.)

The possibilities for describing these employer-employee chains are pretty fun. For instance, Wilson’s Assistant Secretary of the Navy’s Vice President’s general’s Vice President’s Vice President’s CIA Director’s running mate was Ronald Reagan (that’s Wilson-FDR-Truman-Eisenhower-Nixon-Ford-Bush-Reagan). Or, much weirder, Polk’s Secretary of State’s former boss’s former boss’s former boss’s Secretary of State’s UK ambassador’s former boss’s Vice President’s appointed governor’s Vice President was John Tyler, aka the guy Polk replaced. (That one goes Polk-Buchanan-Jackson-Monroe-Jefferson-Madison-JQA-Washington-Adams-Harrison-Tyler.)

In the recent past, we’ve had a lot more isolates than before, although, as noted, there’s a strong argument for connecting W. to the other American Empire guys. But if Clinton wins, we’ll have connections to Obama (who hired her as Secretary of State) and arguably Bill Clinton (it’s pretty odd to think of that as an employment relationship, but First Lady makes the Wikipedia sidebar—nothing I can do!). And if you’re willing to go along with all that, the only guy who would be left out of the loops in the past 120 years is Jimmy Carter, a mediocre President but arguably in the top three in terms of being a decent human being. It’s a little sad to think of him out there by himself; I think Clinton should appoint him Ambassador to Cuba for a couple days.6  It’s what the Founders would have wanted.

 

 


Notes

1. I did all of this with Gephi.

2. One strategy was to try and promote William T. Sherman ahead of Grant to dilute his power. For some reason Sherman preferred to side with Grant, which led to the odd situation of Sherman calling in political favors to battle his own promotion on the Senate floor. See Jean Edward Smith’s Grant, 452. 

3. Betweenness centrality basically measures how important a node is for connecting other groups of nodes to each other; so Jackson is big because he connects all those dark blues to the Founders. The parties here include Democrat (dark blue), Republican (red), Democratic-Republican (light blue), Federalist (yellow), Whig (green), and none (white).

4. Two reasons: 1. There’s not another good name for the period from the 1880’s-1930’s; it’s post-Reconstruction, much longer than the Gilded Age or Progressive Era, and doesn’t align well with any wars. But, 2. Tons of people immigrated to the U.S. over this period. The numbers really explode starting in the 1880’s (they double the 1870’s in the source in that link) and stay strong until the mid-1930’s.

5. In the old days they seemed to call ambassadors “ministers” (e.g., Buchanan was United States Minister to Russia). I’m assuming these jobs are close enough to the same thing for my purposes, though I’d be interested to hear if I’m wrong about that. 

6. First Provisional Governor of Cuba for the U.S.: William Howard Taft. Of course. And by the way, to answer the two questions I asked in the first paragraph and then forgot about: 25 Presidents worked for some other President; JQA and Taft each worked for 4 different Presidents, tying for first on that metric. Three Presidents hired other Presidents 4 times: Jackson hired Buchanan, and then Van Buren for three different things. Madison hired JQA and Monroe for two things apiece. And Washington hired Adams, Jefferson, Monroe, and JQA, one time apiece.

The President Was Here

This post uses Most Distinctive Words to analyze what we talk about when we talk about Presidents.*

WikiPresidentia

I begin with the Wikipedia pages for each U.S. President. I downloaded these in January and then got distracted with work, so they’re a few months out of date, but still relatively fresh compared to most of the texts I work on. I wasn’t too strict about what I took; basically I started at the top of the article and stopped when I felt the article was over. Just having this much gives you access to an underrated form of quantitative textual analysis: checking how long things are. Here are the word counts for each President’s article:

President Word Count
LBJ 18485
JFK 17098
Ike 16458
FDR 16334
Lincoln 15765
Reagan 15374
Wilson 15234
Harding 15220
Grant 15107
Teddy 14868
Nixon 14366
W 14200
Washington 13809
Andrew Johnson 13674
McKinley 12988
Ford 12764
Jackson 12007
Carter 11958
Tyler 11944
Truman 11905
Jefferson 11643
Garfield 11555
Pierce 11537
Clinton 11497
Obama 11437
Hoover 11420
Madison 11008
Adams 10836
George H.W. Bush 10832
Cleveland 10060
Taft 9512
Coolidge 9239
Arthur 9162
JQA 8917
Hayes 8906
Ben Harrison 8423
Buchanan 7035
Van Buren 6966
Monroe 6801
WHH 6714
Taylor 6194
Polk 6096
Fillmore 4774

To me this variation appears to have barely any rhyme or reason. LBJ is a solid contender for the top spot; his Presidency is very tough to rank, because it includes both an incredible domestic agenda (Civil Rights Act, Medicare) and arguably the worst foreign policy agenda (Vietnam). But if you take the “absolute value” of everything he did, there’s no denying he’s one of the most consequential Presidents. Fillmore is also a decent contender for last place, with less than a fourth of LBJ’s word count; I think he’s probably high in the running for “most forgotten President”.** But in between, things quickly get strange. Eisenhower ahead of 4-termer FDR? John Tyler ahead of Thomas Jefferson? Harding ahead of Teddy Roosevelt? Monroe near the bottom?

The big lesson here is that these pages are pretty weird artifacts. Their authors will have stylistic tics (maybe Tyler got a verbose guy, and Monroe got an Imagiste), and editorial decisions might displace whole sections into other articles. For example, in Jefferson’s article, the Louisiana Purchase gets about 250 words, but there’s also a standalone article about the Louisiana Purchase that’s about 5,000 words long—i.e., more worthy of discussion than the entire administration and life of Millard Fillmore, according to random Wikipedia editors.

Most Distinctive Words

Still, even with these idiosyncrasies, we ought to be able to extract something interesting from the language of these articles. For instance, which Presidents’ write-ups have the most to do with slavery, or war? What are the most remarked-upon aspects of, say, Teddy’s life, or the founding fathers, or the Gilded Age? What words, if any, set apart the discourse surrounding an icon like Lincoln from that around a tremendous moral failure like Andrew Jackson?

To explore these questions I turned to Most Distinctive Words (MDWs). This is basically a measure of the words that appear more frequently in a given text than we would expect, based on their frequency in some comparison corpus. In my case, that means checking which words appear disproportionately often in one guy’s article, compared to what we’d see if the words were distributed evenly across all articles.*** So, for instance, we might expect to see “atomic” appear distinctively often for Truman, since he dropped more atom bombs than anyone else—and, in fact, “atomic” is a distinctive word for him (though “bombing” gets you Reagan and LBJ as well).

A few notes about the MDWs you’ll see in the rest of this post: To make life easier, I converted everything to lowercase (that way “train” and “Train” aren’t different words, just because one appears at the beginning of a sentence). I also removed stop words (things like “the” and “of”, which are so frequent that they can skew things, and also are often boring), numbers, and symbols. Finally, I took out the ordinarily used names of Presidents (so, “andrew”, “jackson”, and “jacksons”, the latter to catch possessives), because otherwise they dominate the data, since they are naturally very distinctive of their articles.

The System Works

When you check the MDWs for a particular guy, you usually find a pretty nice encapsulation of his Presidency’s Greatest Hits. Here are the top few for Lincoln:†

Lincoln MDWs
slavery
union
illinois
emancipation
confederate
kentucky
proclamation
douglas
war
mcclellan
land
booth
salem
springfield
free
slave
gettysburg
republicanism

You start with his two signature issues, pick up his home states, roll through his political acts and opponents, and even capture his assassin and, three cells later, one after the other, the reason he was killed. Another good example is Andrew Jackson:

Andrew Jackson MDWs
carolina
creek
rachel
tennessee
hermitage
indian
indians
orleans
south
calhoun
lands
removal
bank
banks
seminole
tribes

You’ve got his famous battle (“orleans”), his refusal to understand finance (“banks”), and his penchant for genocide—rendered all the more striking when you realize that “creek” refers to the Creek tribe (now called Muscogee), who lost a brutal war against Jackson and years later were also victims of the Indian Removal Act.

Since the MDWs work pretty often, it’s pretty striking when they depart from expectations. For some guys, this means a focus on the pre-Presidency—Madison’s top word is “constitution”, Reagan’s are littered with California and Hollywood terms, and Eisenhower’s focus on war terminology for eight straight words until they arrive at “interstate”, before jumping back to “ii”. Ulysses S. Grant is similar—unsurprising, since his own memoir barely mentions that he was President.

In another case that surprised me a little, the focus is on the post-Presidency:

William Howard Taft MDWs
court
justice
chief
v
supreme
opinion

Taft was the only President who ever went on to become a Supreme Court justice. That’s distinguishing in either sense of the word, and a nice legacy for a guy whose is probably best known to the public for being too fat to get out of a bathtub. (The article I have says that the evidence for this actually happening is unclear, but gives two sources for the distressingly ambiguous sentence “However, he once did overflow a bathtub.” I’m surprised and a little disappointed to say this whole sequence has been removed from the current version of the article.)

Another guy who surprised me was JFK. The word “assassination” is just 12th on his list; but on reflection, this may have something to do with the 8,000 word separate article on it, not to be confused with the 19,000 wordJohn F. Kennedy assassination conspiracy theories” article, which is longer than any Presidential article.††

Rules of Distinction

One feature of MDWs is that they privilege proper nouns. This makes sense when you consider just how specific (i.e., distinct) proper nouns are: all sorts of kids have dogs, but only Oblio has Arrow. This means there are a few things that define you if you get a Wikipedia page:

  • Your home. A President’s home state usually appears in his top few MDWs. If a guy has two home states, they both appear: Lincoln gets Illinois and Kentucky, Obama gets Illinois and Hawaii (and, even higher, Chicago). This isn’t a universal rule (JFK doesn’t have “massachusetts”), but it’s quite common.
  • Your wife. George has Martha, John has Abigail, Abe has Mary, Rutherford has Lucy, Herbert has Lou, Dwight has Mamie, Dick has Pat, Ron has Nancy, Bill has Hillary. You’re known by the person you love. But, there’s also:
  • You enemy. The first word for Washington is “british”; “confederate” makes the top five for Lincoln and Grant; Polk has his “mexico” and Truman his “korea”. Booth, Guiteau, Czolgosz, and Oswald make their expected lists. LBJ has not just “vietnam” but “goldwater”. And look back at the Jackson list above: creek, indian, indians, calhoun, bank, banks, seminole, tribes—that’s eight enemies in just 16 words (and another, “orleans”, is the site of a battle). For everyone, but especially for bloodthirsty maniacs, distinction is conferred by who and what we choose to fight.

Eras, In So Many Words

Another cool option with these MDWs is approaching from the other direction. Once we have them, we can pick a word and see who it encompasses. For instance, take the word “gold”. This turns out to be an MDW for Grant, Hayes, Garfield, Cleveland, Harrison, and McKinley—in other words, every President but one (Arthur) from 1868-1901. This is probably a function of the currency debates that dominated that era (the last three guys also have “silver” as an MDW), but it’s also a nice, very literal way to capture the Gilded Age.

Or take another definitive American word: “slave”. That word and “slaves” appear as MDWs for Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, John Quincy Adams, and Jackson—six of the first seven Presidents, and all of the ones who owned slaves themselves. (JQA, like his father, didn’t own any slaves, and the two words appear in his article in the context of his fierce opposition to slavery; for the rest of them, the words are there mainly because they owned slaves.) After this crew, those two words largely disappear, with the exceptions of Fillmore (he had “moderate anti-slavery views”, according to the article) and Lincoln (for obvious reasons).

But the issue does not disappear. The words “slavery” or “antislavery” appear as MDWs for JQA, Jackson, Van Buren, Polk, Taylor, Fillmore, Pierce, and Buchanan, before coming to a close with Lincoln. That’s everyone between the Founding Fathers and the close of the Civil War with the exceptions of William Henry Harrison (who served one month) and John Tyler (who was in office, but didn’t exactly serve at all). Many of these Presidents were slave-owners themselves, but we see a shift away from personal ownership as the focus (with a few overlap cases), and toward the rise of a political cause—from slaves to slavery. It’s a striking lexical marker of the transition from one paradigm to another, maybe somehow indicating the point at which Wikipedia writers and readers feel that Presidents were “of their time” instead of responsible for it.

A Final Mystery

I want to end with something I noticed but can’t quite explain. The word “president” actually appears as an MDW in several cases. Here they are:

word frequency p value President
president 101 0.000131294 Tyler
president 102 0.001869553 Andrew Johnson
president 74 0.002524355 Taft
president 105 0.006078532 W
president 80 0.008887996 George HW Bush
president 52 0.00954079 WH Harrison
president 96 0.016850757 Nixon
president 86 0.018566542 Ford
president 98 0.038807297 Reagan

In some of these cases, it seems like the word might have to do with unique relationships to the office. Harrison died immediately, Tyler took over even though no one wanted him (he was known as “His Accidency“), while succession laws were still untested, and Johnson abused the office to veto Congress until they impeached him (note: if you include “presidential” in these results, you add Clinton to the mix, suggesting impeachment may play a role). Still, even if this is right, it only explains a few articles. I have no idea what any of this has to do with Taft.

And then there’s this: Every Republican President since 1968 has the word “president” as an MDW. What’s more, in this era it’s only Republicans—Carter, Clinton, and Obama are all missing from that list. Why is this happening? Is it some sort of conservative preference for hierarchy/authority? A right-wing love of the institution? The tendency of these Presidents to wield presidential authority in problematic ways (Watergate, the pardon of the guy who did Watergate, Iran-Contra, the Decider and his father)? Just a random tic from a prolific Wikipedia editor? (Even then, it might interesting that the editor of these articles has that tic.)

I looked at the word’s usage in the articles in hope of clarity, but the answer wasn’t immediately obvious. I did notice that, in the George W. Bush article, for instance, there was a tendency to call him “President Bush” in photo captions (which are included in the articles I analyzed)—but this doesn’t explain why other articles don’t follow the same practice. This all put me in mind of a bumper sticker I used to see in Texas, that looked roughly like this:

WthePresident

I never knew how to interpret it. What’s the point of stating that the current President is the President? I am being completely honest when I say that I don’t know if this is supposed to be combative, reassuring, snarky, patriotic, a sign of the tribe, or something else I haven’t even thought of. So it’s interesting to see a sort of version of it replicated in these MDWs—105 uses of the word President††† in an article that tells you, right at the top, that it’s about a President. It’s an interesting form of distinction for the modern Republican President—the simple confirmation that they held the job.

 


Notes

*It was very tempting to use this as the title of the post, but I think you just can’t do that anymore. If you Google “what we talk about when we talk about” -love (the last part is so that you don’t get any actual references to Raymond Carver’s short story), you get 211,000 results. Based on those results, here are a few of the things about which we talk about what we talk about when we talk about them:

  • Apple and Compelled Speech
  • Gun Violence
  • “The Uyghurs” (quotation marks in original)
  • Indicators
  • Clone Club
  • Causality
  • GIFs
  • God
  • Minimalism

** I doubt he wins though; his name is too weird. My guess is Ben Harrison.

***Specifically, I used word frequencies from all articles to set expected values, and word frequencies in given articles to set observed values. I then used a Fisher’s exact test to determine which words were significantly more present than expected. I did not look for words that were missing (e.g., if a President’s article says “war” much less than ordinary). My thanks to Mark Algee-Hewitt for helping me write the R code used in this project, and for explaining MDWs to me in the first place.

† In all cases, the words are ordered by p-value, where lower is taken to mean “more distinctive”. Here and below, I’m pasting in partial lists for space purposes.

†† This makes it longer than Macbeth, as well as 7 other Shakespeare plays. See also the 2,800 word “Assassination of John F. Kennedy in Popular Culture” article.

††† W’s article has 105 occurrences of the word “president”, more than three times as many as George Washington, who not only has a roughly equal-length article, but practically invented the office.