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The Zero Factor

By Arianne R. Cohen

According to legend, our new president has an extremely high chance of dying while in office--an 87.5 percent chance, in fact, based on the seven of eight eligible presidents who have died by the legend. Many voters--45 percent, to be exact--would probably find this statistic to be the only positive thing about Election 2000, although I personally would prefer to have a president too incompetent to do damage in office over one who voted against the Clean Water Act (our new Vice President-elect Richard B. Cheney). However, a legend's a legend, and a legend doesn't care about personal opinions.

The Zero Factor legend began back in 1813, when William Henry Harrison was governor of the Indiana Territory. His prime task as governor was to obtain title to Indian lands, enabling settlers to press forward into the wilderness. The Indians didn't seem to agree with his task, and at the Battle of the Thames during the War of 1812, Harrison and his troops killed the great Indian leader Tecumseh. Reportedly, Tecumseh's brother, The Prophet, was so distraught over the slaying of his beloved brother that he laid a curse on William Henry Harrison, "and all who follow him." Twenty-seven years later, when Harrison was elected president, he mysteriously died within a month of taking office of complications from a common cold. Harrison was the first American president to die in office, following 12 other successful presidential terms (for our purposes, a surviving president is a successful president).

Therefore, the Zero Factor legend has been taken to explain why all other presidents elected in zero years (1840, 1860, etc.) have passed away in office, with the exception of Ronald Reagan, who suffered an assassination attempt.

Coincidence? I think not. For those of you who are skeptics, I'll run through the progression of dead presidents: President Abraham Lincoln, elected in 1860, was assassinated in a theater in 1865 by John Wilkes Booth, who seemed to think he was helping the South. President James Garfield, elected in 1880, was assassinated by a not-too-sane man who would have preferred Chester Arthur as President.

President William McKinley, elected in 1900, was assassinated by a deranged anarchist while standing in a receiving line at the 1901 Buffalo Pan-American Exposition. President Warren Harding, elected 1920, died of a combination of thrombosis and pneumonia amidst great political scandal in 1923.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt '40 died of a cerebral hemorrhage toward the end of World War II. And, most recently, President John F. Kennedy '40 was assassinated while in office. Of course, Reagan disrupted the trend by surviving his 1981 assassination attempt, only 69 days into office. The bullet lodged itself within a centimeter of his aorta, and only modern medicine saved him. (Instead, his theatrical grace and wit during the assassination incident caused his popularity to soar.)

The only other president to die in office was President Zachary Taylor, elected in 1848. However, President Taylor allegedly spent July 4, 1850, eating cherries and milk at a ceremony at the Washington Monument. He got sick from the heat and died five days later, the second president to die in office. Frankly, he should have known better--that cherries and milk combination is always a killer.

Eighty-eight percent of Americans are superstitious. Based on this statistic, we can extrapolate that the majority of Americans would expect our newest president to have, at the very least, a close brush with death while in office. And the majority always rules.

So, President-elect Bush, you'd better watch out!

Arianne R. Cohen '03 is a government concentrator in Leverett House.

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