Every American President in a Single Knife Fight: This is What the Internet Was Made For

It’s bad form to start my week off with a link to external content, or at least bad policy — got to save those freebies for late in the week when I’ve gotten busy with other things! But this one was too good to pass up. Reddit, in a rare moment of tolerability, posed the entertaining hypothetical:

43 knife-wielding Presidents enter an arena. One President leaves. Who is it?

Things quickly got specific:

* Every president is in the best physical and mental condition they were ever in throughout the course of their presidency. Fatal maladies have been cured, but any lifelong conditions or chronic illnesses (e.g. FDR’s polio) remain.

* The presidents are fighting in an ovular arena 287 feet long and 180 feet wide (the dimensions of the Roman Colosseum). The floor is concrete. Assume that weather is not a factor.

* Each president has been given one standard-issue Gerber LHR Combat Knife , the knife presented to each graduate of the United States Army Special Forces Qualification Course. Assume the presidents have no training outside any combat experiences they may have had in their own lives.

* There is no penalty for avoiding combat for an extended period of time. Hiding and/or playing dead could be valid strategies, but there can be only one winner. The melee will go on as long as it needs to.

* FDR has been outfitted with a Bound Plus H-Frame Power Wheelchair, and can travel at a maximum speed of around 11.5 MPH. The wheelchair has been customized so that he is holding his knife with his dominant hand. This is to compensate for his almost certain and immediate defeat in the face of an overwhelming disadvantage.

* Each president will be deposited in the arena regardless of their own will to fight, however, personal ethics, leadership ability, tactical expertise etc., should all be taken into account. Alliances are allowed.

A number of people have done good commentary on their own blogs already. I found the link on Alas, a Blog, which put an interesting focus on alliances, especially the Presidential families (Adamses, Roosevelts, and Bushes, with a footnote for the Harrisons); they gave the win to George H. W. Bush. Face in the Blue took a more person-by-person approach and called it for Teddy Roosevelt.

So let me just say: this is what the internet is for.

You can kill a whole lot of time on a question like this now that you have Wikipedia, and you have incentive to now that there’s Reddit to argue on, to say nothing of all us bloggers re-posting the question. In fact, I fully encourage you to waste some time thinking about it! I certainly have. And since you’re dying to know my thoughts on the matter, here they are:

The Scenario: As other people have pointed out, there are a few natural alliances going into the fight. These make a huge difference — two guys watching one another’s backs (at least for a while) have an immense advantage over someone all on his own in a crowded, confused melee like this.

We can safely assume that the Bushes, Roosevelts, and Adamses will all stick up for one another. They knew each other while they were living and come from families with strong senses of clanship. The Roosevelts benefit most from this — Teddy gets the aid of FDR’s wheelchair, which is both cover and serious intimidation factor against all the pre- and early-20th century Presidents.

Other natural and obvious alliances include Presidents who directly succeeded one another on good terms — Kennedy and LBJ, Madison and Monore, etc. The biggest threats (in my mind) are the natural combinations of Lincoln, Grant, and Hayes and the two Bushes and Reagan. You might also see a major coalition of Founding Fathers that includes Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe, but they’re at natural odds with the Admases and Washington is unlikely to take sides, dooming any alliances there to rapid fracturing, infighting, and getting picked off by tough loners.

Once the field has been thinned a bit I see good chances for a couple combinations: the Roosevelts with their wheelchair plus Teddy’s savagery, the Bushes if they can keep Dubbya from doing anything stupid, Jackson if he can play nice long enough to keep Van Buren and possibly Taylor or Polk on his side for a while, and the Hayes-Grant-Lincoln alliance.

Final Victor: I call the fight for Ulysses S. Grant. He combines three key attributes: good health and vigor (relative to other Presidents), immediate and valuable allies at the outset (Lincoln and Hayes), and previous military experience. He’s also arguably the most ruthless son of a bitch on the field, and more than comfortable with the idea of doing anything to win. Hell, he basically wrote the book on doing anything to win. He’ll make the right call on when to expend his allies, probably so precisely that he never even needs to knife them himself, and finish the other big guns off while there’s still a few other threats tussling with them.

Runners-up: Slots two and three go to Teddy Roosevelt and Andrew Jackson, respectively. Both are vicious sons-of-bitches that actually liked to fight.

Roosevelt has plenty of experience in brawling and a taste for blood, as well as the shielding presence of FDR’s magical chair, which will keep him from having to do much fighting early on. He gets the luxury of picking his battles for a long while and enters the final stages less tired than Jackson and any allies he’s hung onto. I see Teddy getting wounded several times during people’s attempts to pick off FDR, but staying on his feet long enough to polish off Grant’s last allies at least.

Jackson is unquestionably the meanest guy on the field, and we can safely count on him to slaughter a few easy targets in particularly gruesome and spectacular ways early on, encouraging other contenders to go pick on someone else. He and Van Buren (and possibly Polk and/or Taylor) pick people off together for a long time, slipping into other melees and backstabbing viciously. As it nears the end Jackson loses Van Buren and has to go it alone, and probably dies taking out either FDR or one of the Lincoln-Grant-Hayes axis. It’s safe to assume that he leads the board in total kills by a healthy margin.

Honorable Mentions:

Abraham Lincoln – Lincoln brings an impressive combination to the field: he’s got the best reach out there, and he has an automatic alliance in place with Ulysses S. Grant, who in turn adds Rutherford B. Hayes for a formidable threesome. He’s also a Presidential legend, and the untouchable role model for nearly every 20th century President, making half the field deeply unwilling to be the guy to stab him. His aura shields Grant and Hayes from much of the early fighting, and together the three go almost to the end. Lincoln either goes down fighting with another titan of the arena like Roosevelt and Jackson, or to a knife in the back from Grant near the very end.

Zachary Taylor – I want to give Taylor a higher spot. He has 40 years of military experience under his belt, and it’s military experience from a time when stabbing people to death was de rigueur. But per the rules he’s at the peak of his physical prime during his Presidency, which ended 16 months after it began at the ripe old age of 65. So even putting him at a sprightly 64, he lacks the strength or stamina to last against the rest of the serious contenders, putting him toward the bottom of the top 10.

Rutherford B. Hayes – A natural ally in the Lincoln/Grant faction and an experienced veteran himself, Hayes is a little past his prime by his Presidency and Grant’s going to be willing to expend him before he works up the nerve to knife Grant. He goes far and then takes one for his team, probably against the Roosevelts or the Bushes.

Franklin D. Roosevelt – No one from before him is going to want to mess with that futuristic chair, and no one after him wants to be the asshole who knifes FDR. As long as he’s smart enough to run when confronted, he’ll last until close to the end, when the real hard-asses realize that someone’s got to do it. If he plays it smart, he could see a couple of the best contenders bumping each other off in a confused struggle to deal with his chair.

George W. H. Bush – His strength is also his weakness. He comes in with a natural and a valuable ally — he and George W. Bush in their Presidential primes are among the healthiest Presidents out there, and they both have actual military experience. But Dubbya’s overconfidence is going to get him into trouble sooner rather than later, and when it does G. H. is out there on the limb with him. Both of them are going to end up knifed in the back by an opportunist while tangling with someone tough.

Barak Obama – Unquestionably one of the fittest Presidents out there, and a man who’s not afraid to make hard decisions. He’ll defend himself well, but he lacks the ruthlessness to bump off other threats when their backs are turned. He goes down nobly, face-to-face with one of the toughest scrappers. Of course, you could argue that everyone from before Lincoln (and no few from after him, for that matter) will turn on the one black guy in the arena first thing, which shortens his life expectancy dramatically.

Martin Van Buren – Unimpressive on his own (no fighting experience and already in his mid-50s), Van Buren is about the only President on the field that Andrew Jackson can stand. Old Hickory’s not dumb, and he’ll keep Van Buren around for a long while just to have someone watching his back. They play it safe and nasty, knifing a lot of people in the back before a face-to-face tangle finally does Van Buren in.

Dwight Eisenhower – He brings a good military background to the field, but it’s from an era when knife fighting was a measure of last resort rather than part of the daily routine. Good fitness and combat-readiness get Ike a good way in, but he lacks any natural allies on the field (he broke with his predecessor Truman to run as a Republican, infuriating Truman, and actively and aggressively campaigned against his successor Kennedy). Nixon might cling to him for a little while, but that’s a mixed blessing at the very best, and even Ike probably isn’t trusting enough to turn his back completely on Nixon.

James Polk – A smart man who knows his limits and has the immediate friendship of Jackson and Van Buren. He’s frailer than either of them, and has a little less fire in his belly, so I don’t see him making it to the very end, but he squeaks into the top 10 by virtue of careful play and strong allies.

Lyndon B. Johnson – LBJ makes it into the top 10 on pure personal strength, size, and tenacity. He’s big, mean, in decent shape at the start of his Presidency, and about as inured to bloodshed as you can get. Anyone from his era who ever saw him give “the treatment” is going to steer clear, and none of the smart players are going to want to risk a face-to-face confrontation with someone that big and mean. He goes a long way battering down small, helpless targets until someone finally gets him in the back mid-massacre.

The Slaughtered (Bottom 10):

William Taft – Grossly overweight, he takes a while to die, but can’t prevent passers-by from taking their cuts on the run. Not the first to go, but he’s worn down and pecked to pieces by opportunists early on. His only consolation is that most of his killers will die soon after him — the real threats in this arena aren’t going to bother with Taft; they know they can stay out of his reach while they deal with more important targets, and they have nothing to gain from wasting energy on everyone’s easy pickings.

James Madison – An undersized intellectual born into a privileged life, Madison may well be the first to die. His big service to the larger spectacle is the possibility of a Madison/Jefferson attack on Adams Sr., their political rival, which might drag Adams Jr. in for some four-way bloodshed.

Thomas Jefferson – Like Madison, he brings entirely the wrong skills to the party, and has too many other Presidents with grudges against him on the field. If an Adams doesn’t shank him, Andrew Jackson will probably single him out as easy pickings early on, and (knowing Jackson) kill him in a particularly spectacular and painful way as a warning to others.

William Henry Harrison – He was the oldest President to take office until Reagan, and he started his Presidency out in ill health. Jackson/Van Buren also have an active grudge, which isn’t a thing you want on this field. He’s toast.

Woodrow Wilson – Fragile, intellectual, and weary of combat. I see him symbolically tossing his weapon aside and trying to reason with others, which earns him a knife in the gut from someone like Nixon or Grant. If he does grit his teeth and try to fight the result is basically the same, ten or fifteen seconds later.

John F. Kennedy – The youngest guy on the field, but in poor health all the same. His only hope lies in clinging to LBJ, the big Southern brawler. Creepy for LBJ, of course, who knows how Kennedy ended up the first time, and on his own he’s not enough to protect JFK from an opportunist’s knife early on.

Andrew Johnson – Lincoln died before Johnson started really pissing people off, but Grant and his ally Hayes are going to be all too eager to stick Johnson full of pointy things. He’s a strong contender for “first one to die to an alliance with a grudge,” unless the Adamses get to Madison first.

John Tyler – He lacks natural allies and, like Harrison, has the enmity of the Jackson/Van Buren/Polk alliance. Old Hickory is going to feast on his liver.

George Washington – I want to rank George higher, but he’s going to be determinedly non-partisan and stay out of any fractious alliances that might develop among the Founding Father Presidents. That leaves him high and dry for a more modern blood-seeker to single out and shank. I see him either going down to a weasel like Nixon or getting bagged as “big game” by Teddy Roosevelt or Andrew Jackson.

Ronald Reagan – He’s old, half-senile, and entirely too convinced of his own prowess as a shoot-em-up cowboy. The Bushes might be able to shield him for a little while, but he’ll die to some colonial-era opportunist who doesn’t even know who he’s shanking.

And that’s my take on it. Fun game, isn’t it? Like I said, pretty much what the internet is for…I’ll leave the comments section for you to call your own outcomes, or criticize my take on it.

Have fun!

    • tipsysparrow
    • September 10th, 2012

    I feel like this is maybe a shamefully good teaching strategy for kids who are trying to learn all the presidents, it’s like a historical batman vs superman discussion.

    • I learned things just writing it! Zachary Taylor’s crazy 40 years of military service were basically unknown to me (or else I’d forgotten them), and James Polk has to be one of the most successful Presidents whose name you’ve ever struggled to remember.

  1. I think Lincoln would do better than you’re expecting. Even in Colonial times, most of the military men who became president were cavalry officers used to fighting from the back of a horse at most. Lincoln out of all of them was accounted as an excellent wrestler as a younger man, and thus probably has the most hand to hand combat experience of all the presidents. Yes, he had various ailments that plagued him, but he was still only in his early 50s when he took office, which isn’t that old.

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