Many parents secretly hope their kid grows up to become president of the United States. The odds are long; but it never hurts to dream, right?
One day back in the spring of 1887, a man who actually had the job made a very strange wish … and he had no idea what fate had in store for the child he wished it upon.
Grover Cleveland was a lot of things. He was the fattest guy elected president (until Taft shattered that rotund record 12 years later). He was the only man to serve two non-consecutive terms, which forever screwed up the presidential numbering system. He was president #22, lost his reelection bid to president #23, and then was re-elected four years later. So, was he #22 again or #24? (After much debate, historians eventually decided to call him #22 and #24. Go figure.)
Cleveland was from New York state and had a good friend there named James.
James lived in the Hudson River Valley, came from an old family, and was socially well-connected. He was a rich businessman who dealt in coal and railroads.
In the mid-1880s, he sank a lot of money into a partnership that wanted to build a canal across Panama. (This was 20 years before the U.S. did it.) He needed Washington’s help persuading Nicaragua—which controlled Panama back then—to let them dig. That meant lots of lobbying both of Congress and the Cleveland administration.
James decided to make a long visit to D.C. He, his wife, and their 5-year-old son Frank spent the first six months of 1887 in a rented a house on then-fashionable K Street.
In between all his wining and dining, as he schmoozed congressmen and bureaucrats, James also paid several purely social calls on his buddy Grover in the White House. How good friends were they?
A year earlier, the 49-year-old Cleveland had married Frances Folsom, his lovely 21-year-old ward. The union made a lot of presidential history. Cleveland was the first president to get married while in office, the only president to marry in the White House itself, and Frances became the youngest First Lady in American history. (Jackie Kennedy, who was 31 when JFK’s presidency began, was #2.)
And there, on a prominent White House fireplace mantel, sat the splendid clock James had given the couple as a wedding gift. So when I say James and Grover were buddies, trust me, they were tight.
Anyway, back to our story.
As James’ extended stay in Washington was coming to a close, he hit up Cleveland for one small, but very personal favor: He wanted to bring young Frank to the White House to meet the president.
“Sure,” Grover said, “bring him by late tomorrow afternoon.”
And so James and Frank went to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue the next day and waited outside Cleveland’s second-floor office.
It turned out Cleveland was having a particularly stressful day, and when the door opened and he finally appeared he was visibly weary. James introduced Frank and they shook hands.
Then Cleveland said something very odd. He patted the child’s head and said, “My little man, I’m making a strange wish for you. May you never grow up to be president of the United States.”
At age five, Frank already had a knack for ignoring what he was told, and he apparently did so this time.
Because 46 years later, Frank was elected president. And re-elected. And re-elected. And re-elected.
Frank, as you’ve probably guessed, was Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Not only did Cleveland pick the wrong boy for his strange wish, he picked the one who would go on to serve as president longer than anyone else!
How’s that for irony? O. Henry couldn’t have written a better twist ending.