Top Petty Moments in U.S History
BY MAYENLI COMFORT '23
The United States of America is many things. We are a military superpower and an arrogant and self-centered country that *apparently* spans an entire continent. We created today’s entertainment industry and pioneered cutting-edge technology. However, despite how good we are at it, we never get enough credit for our true area of expertise: pettiness.
Pettiness is an attribute we celebrate, whether it comes in the form of diss tracks, clap backs, or a good old-fashioned battle of words. Embedded in our political history as well, pettiness takes the form from men in powdered wigs to those in actual wigs.
One of the earliest incidents of pettiness in U.S. history involved John Adams, the second president of the United States, who also happened to be a very insecure man. George Washington attended his inauguration, appearing relieved to be leaving the office. He treated Adams with respect by not leaving a room until Adams had left it. Adams, however, was inflamed and wrote to his wife complaining about Washington’s magnanimous, pretentious behavior. Adams’s true political enemy, however, was Thomas Jefferson, even though they were friends outside the sphere of politics. Jefferson’s supporters had the nasty habit of ridiculing Adams in their newspapers and amongst themselves. The newspapers enraged Adams; he saw this as an attack on his very person and image. As retaliation, he passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, making it illegal to criticize the government in print. Yeah, I know. Adams believed in freedom of the press except when the press chose to write critically about him.
Fast-forward sixty years or so, to when the Civil War was in full bloom. General Robert E. Lee was the Confederacy’s highest commanding officer and one of the most popular and respected men. Lee married Mary Custis. Mary had been an only child, so her father left her and Lee his grand estate in Arlington, Virginia. When the war broke out, the Lees fled their less than humble abode due to its proximity to the Union’s capital. While they were away fighting a war, they failed to pay property taxes, so the U.S. government seized the property. To add insult to injury, Lincoln ordered the bodies of fallen Union soldiers to be buried at Lee’s home. By the end of the war, the site was covered with Union graves. This site then became Arlington National Cemetery. That’s right, the burial site of some of the country's most prominent figures was once the home of the man who tried to tear the Union apart.
As our country grew, so did our pettiness. Lyndon B. Johnson infamously became president after JFK was assassinated. A lesser-known fact is that he had a heated feud with JFK’s older brother, Bobby Kennedy. It is unclear how the feud started, but these two men hated each other with a burning passion. After LBJ accepted his nomination as JFK’s vice president, Bobby publicly rescinded the offer even though he lacked the authority to do so. Bobby refused to invite him to dinner parties, and when he did, he had his wife relegated LBJ to the “loser’s table.” The feud escalated when JFK was assassinated, and Bobby candidly told a reporter that “[o]ur president [JFK] was a gentleman...he [LBJ] is vicious...bitter and an animal.” Johnson also made efforts to ridicule Bobby, condescendingly referring to him as “sonny.” JFK had appointed him Attorney General, even though he was grossly unqualified for the job. Many, including LBJ, viewed this as nepotism, and LBJ passed the bill making it illegal to appoint family members to government positions supposedly to get back at Bobby Kennedy.
Although the Kennedy-Johnson feud is a prime example of political pettiness, American pettiness was not limited to domestic policies. The threat of Saddam Hussein and the Iraq invasion occupied the political debates in the early 2000s. Bush Jr. was in charge, and Hussein took every opportunity to ridicule him. Saddam Hussein had an unflattering mosaic of Bush that read “Bush is Criminal” placed outside a prominent hotel in Baghdad, so any and every visitor had to step on his face. When Saddam was finally captured, Bush instructed that the mosaic be removed and replaced with Hussein’s face. U.S. soldiers were asked to complete this task, and the cherry on top was that they were all required to walk over the mosaic—an order they carried out gleefully.
After 9/11, Bush declared “war on terrorism” and intended to make good on his promise by invading Iraq. The only problem is that you need approval from the U.N Security Council to invade another country. France, a permanent member of the council, vehemently opposed the possibility of war and threatened to veto it if the U.S. proposed it. In retaliation, a North Carolina restaurant renamed their French fries as Freedom Fries. This inspired a House Representative, Bobby Ney, to change the name of French fries in the Congressional Cafeteria to Freedom Fries, all because France didn't want to start another war.
Lastly, the king of American pettiness: Donald J. Trump. Trump was known for his pettiness even before his presidency. By the time he became president, he had mastered the craft and other valuable skills like excessive self-tanning and compulsive lying. His most infamous petty tantrum was his behavior after the death of Sen. John McCain. McCain had been an outspoken critic of Trump, and Trump figured McCain’s tragic death to cancer was the perfect opportunity to flaunt his pettiness. Trump refused to fly the White House flag in half-mast as is customary when a sitting senator dies. He did not attend McCain’s funeral or make any official statement. As the ultimate display of pettiness, Trump visited a naval base and requested that the newly christened USS McCain be removed from the port so as not to appear in any of his pictures. He also denied attendance to any of the naval officers/staff of the ship to his rally at the base because of the name that would appear on their shoulder patches.
American pettiness, like all other aspects of American politics, is polarizing. Some think it is a shame that instead of doing their jobs, politicians engage in pointless battles of words. Others take pride when their favorite politician comes up with the perfect clap back (think AOC and Ted Cruz), while others, including me, would rather sit back and observe the beautiful disaster that is American politics.