What presidents did and hid: The “Secrets and Scandals” tour uncovers their best kept misfortunes and misbehaviors.
By Sophia Lindsey and Lilly Maier.
The Secretary of the Treasury embezzles federal money and uses it to pay off his mistress’s husband, and his biggest rival leaks it to the press. What sounds like a scene from the new season of ABC’s Scandal actually took place more than two hundred years ago. The Secretary was Founding Father, Alexander Hamilton, his arch nemesis was Thomas Jefferson, then Secretary of State. Huddled together in front of the White House on “the most expensive grass you will ever sit on,” as tour guide Erin shares with her listeners, about thirty people lean in to hear more of the missteps and misfortunes of yesterdays greatest leaders.
They have come to experience a two-hour walking tour that explores the “Secrets and Scandals” of our nation’s capitol. While DC by Foot also offers ordinary history tours on Capitol Hill or Arlington Cemetery, this one stands out. Appealing to our need for gossip, the tour intends to de-mystify the American presidents and bring out their more human sides. “Guys, ready to talk some trash?” exclaims Erin, a young energetic woman in her mid-thirties, donning a bright orange shirt with the company’s logo on it and a surprising amount of sun lotion, considering the late hour.
To the distinct sound of protesters chanting “No war in Syria” in front of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Erin shares insights into the Secret Service – or the “Men in Black”, as a little boy in a red shirt calls them: The paperwork to found the Secret Service was lying on President Lincoln’s desk while he was sitting in Ford’s Theatre waiting to be shot, and President Roosevelt was actually driven to give his famous Infamy Speech in Al Capone’s car that the Secret Service had previously confiscated.
As the sun sets, Erin leads the crowd to a somewhat inconspicuous house, the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. Her listeners know by now not to expect great and mystical tales of presidential heroes from the past. Instead, they learn that this is “the ugliest building in Washington, DC” – at least according to President Truman. Erin, who came up with the idea for this specific tour, enriches her presentation with several quotes and colorful language, referring to Founding Father Jefferson as “TJ” and calling the history book version of the burning of Washington in 1814 a “bunch of bull-faced lies”.
Erin knows what visitors are interested in, as she used to be one herself not too long ago. In 2011, she attended the “Lincoln Assassination Tour”, when DC by Foot founder, Eddie, spontaneously invited her to join the team. The company offers up to seven tours a day, showing around school classes as well as tourists. The tours are free, operating on a pay-what-you-like model. “We believe that everybody should be able to learn about this great city of Washington D.C., regardless of your budget,” the company’s philosophy reads on its website. The concept sure is lucrative: While most visitors pay between five and ten dollars, some go as far as to give sixty.
After two hours of tales of first ladies who committed bigamy, duels involving vice-presidents and Dolley Madison’s famous letters (“the first American PR campaign ever”), Erin goes on to talk about two would-be presidential assassinations. While President Truman’s aspiring murderers emphasized that it was “nothing personal”, President Reagan was more concerned about his thousand dollar suit being ruined than just being shot at. He only stopped arguing with ER personnel to greet his wife, Nancy: “Hi honey, I forgot to duck.”