Daniel O’Brien: Fighting Words

The author of the historical non-fiction book "How To Fight Presidents" talks with us about the eccentricities of past commanders-in-chief, and why Millard Fillmore is dead meat.

Tough Guys: In his new book, author/humorist Daniel O'Brien ponders the pugilistic prowess of ex-presidents, including, from left, Andrew Jackson, Theodore Roosevelt, Richard Nixon and George Washington.
Cover illustration by Michael S. Heath/Three Rivers Press

Have you ever wanted to punch the president in the nose? Hazlet native Daniel O’Brien has considered that possibility, and in his new book, How To Fight Presidents: Defending Yourself Against the Badasses Who Ran This Country (Three River Press), he shares his humorous insights about how each president—only the dead ones—might react to a good hard smack.

The 28-year-old O’Brien, a graduate of Raritan High School and Rutgers University (class of 2008), is head writer and creative director of video at the humor website cracked.com (one-time counterpart to the now-defunct Cracked magazine). Each chapter of his book is dedicated to one of the 38 deceased presidents, and delves into that chief executive’s physical health, military history and any incidents that might have informed his fighting style. Winston Rowntree’s cartoonish illustrations form a winning tag team with O’Brien’s commentaries.

O’Brien isn’t concerned with the presidents’ political accomplishments. Rather, he ferrets out amusing and little-known facts, such as John Quincy Adams’s penchant for keeping an alligator as a pet and swimming naked across the Potomac River every morning. He does have harsh words for Millard Fillmore, a president so unremarkable O’Brien says he “sucks at everything except sucking, at which he stands alone as champion.”

We spoke with O’Brien, who now lives in Santa Monica, California, about the presidents and the punch they packed.

New Jersey Monthly: What sparked your interest in history?

Daniel O’Brien: Part of it stems from me being socially useless…I’m bad at talking to strangers and being present at social functions. I can only function at parties because I’m an info-junkie; I read a lot about history and presidents—and also pop culture—as a social defense mechanism. If there’s ever an awkward silence at a party, I can talk about some weird bit of presidential trivia which, at the very least, will start a conversation.

NJM: In a presidential battle-royale, who would you put your money on?
DOB: Teddy Roosevelt, Andrew Jackson and George Washington are the clear favorites. My top-choice changes day-to-day, but I know it will be one of those three guys. Gerald Ford and James K. Polk might surprise us, and Millard Fillmore is toast, immediately, forever.

NJM: Two presidents had ties to New Jersey. Grover Cleveland was born in Caldwell and is buried in Princeton. Woodrow Wilson was president of Princeton University and a Jersey governor. Who would fare better in a fight?
Cleveland, hands down. He’s got some fighting experience and he’s got the weight/size advantage. Wilson, toward the end of his presidency, was so sickly and useless.

NJM: Was George Washington as tough as legend suggests?
Are you ready? HE WAS TOUGHER.

NJM: What does a president’s governing style imply about his fighting style?
Every aspect of every person informs how they’d do in a fight. Confidence and desperation are both important factors in a fight, and they’re both highlighted when a person is given power.

NJM: What was the most surprising fact you found in researching this book?
Grover Cleveland had a secret mouth-cancer surgery at sea in the middle of his presidency and didn’t tell anyone, not even his vice president.

NJM: Think your book will pop up in history class syllabuses?
That would be as amazing as it would be irresponsible.

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