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Politics

Which U.S. Presidents Could Parallel Park? An Investigation

Joe Biden driving an electric Hummer
Screengrab: C-SPAN

Joe Biden has had a week that would excite a toddler. Yeah, he signed his big infrastructure bill on Monday. But then he got to visit a new bridge. And yesterday he got to ride in a big, fast truck! He actually drove the truck, which is well out of the comfort zone of a toddler. Look, the metaphor’s not perfect.

After touring a GM plant and driving an electric Hummer, he had a Bidenesque quote: “I’m an automobile guy.” I always thought of Biden as a train guy—the Amtrak station in Wilmington is named after him, after all—but he’s a car guy too. Remember the ad where he said, “God, could my dad drive a car”? What does that even mean? Anyway, yesterday, we learned that, God, Joe Biden can drive a car too. Look at him go!

Clip via C-Span

Admit it: You also thought he was going to crash right into that cement mixer. But this was not the only time he peeled out this year, as Biden floored it in a Ford electric truck back in May.

Biden owns a 1967 Corvette Stingray; he once did a burnout in it with Jay Leno in the passenger seat. Unfortunately for President Joe, he hasn’t been allowed to drive it in public in quite a while: Former presidents and vice presidents—let alone those currently in office—are not allowed to drive on public roads. This is the first time I’ve ever wanted to be president: Legally, someone would have to chauffeur me around for the rest of my life? Sounds like a plan.

I actually don’t mind driving, and despite not owning a car for a long stretch of my life until very recently, I think I am pretty good at parallel parking—especially now that my car has a backup camera. I had to parallel park for my driving test, which I passed at a DMV in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, that is literally built on top of a mass grave. But enough spooky backstory: I can parallel park. He’s legally not allowed to any more, but can Joe Biden? Heck, can any president?

I decided to investigate.

Who was the first president to drive?

According to a Bill Clinton-era “White House for Kids” webpage from 1998, the first “qualified driver” to be elected president was Warren Harding. That means we can rule out every president from George Washington to Woodrow Wilson. None of them knew how to drive, let alone parallel park. Who is buried in Grant’s tomb? A man who didn’t even know how to drive a car. The first 28 presidents are NO.

OK, great. So when did parallel parking begin?

The first reference to parallel parking I can find in a newspaper is in the Aug. 15, 1915 edition of a Brooklyn newspaper called The Chat. A group known as the Safety First Society of New York studied traffic and offered several recommendations to improve automobile safety; one of these was a rule that would require delivery vehicles to parallel park. “These recommendations will undoubtedly be considered seriously as they come at at time when accidents are occurring entirely too often,” the paper wrote. By the next year, Detroit was enforcing parallel parking laws on certain streets. Before, cars would park at an angle. “The present system of parking cars on those two thoroughfares,” The Detroit Free Press wrote, “makes it almost impossible to other vehicles to get through the streets without some bad mixups with street cars.”

You’re not going to believe this, but people resisted this change. In 1929, business owners in San Bernardino, California, circulated a petition to call for the abolishment of parallel parking, saying it had hurt their business. “Third Street business men favor the return fo the old plan, which permits easier parking, particularly for the women motorists,” The San Bernardino County Sun wrote. Do we have any idea if the stock market crash can be blamed on parallel parking? Just throwing it out there.

By the late 1940s, parallel parking was the norm in urban areas, it seems. A 1949 report out of Lincoln, Nebraska said the city was slow to adopt the “new look” of parallel parking. But it was still being debated. In 1957, the city of Taylor, Texas held a special election to decide on parallel vs. diagonal parking. Parallel parking carried the election, 3-2.

Does this rule out anyone else?

It does. Harding is a NO, as he’s just too early. Automotivemap.com tells me in a listicle that Calvin Coolidge “was known as a man who appreciated only moderate speed rides in autos.” To me, this is now the defining trait of Silent Cal. No way could he parallel park. His successor, Herbert Hoover was a huge fan of driving. After he was drubbed out of office—I remember my grade school history teacher saying “Rudolph Valentino could have beaten him in the 1932 election”—he drove a 1932 Cadillac V-16 Imperial Limousine and his wife’s Fords, per an auction house that sold that Cadillac. (It went for $87,750.) Post-presidency, Hoover lived in Palo Alto, California, before moving to the Waldorf Astoria in New York City after his wife’s death in 1944. He certainly enjoyed driving. But I don’t think he ever parallel parked. It certainly wasn’t mandatory: I found a 1957 column from The Los Gatos Times-Saratoga Observer that talked about parallel parking being added to the driving test.

“I don’t park parallel in a single space and I do not need to,” a 75-year-old named Jay Haight wrote to the paper. “In San Jose, in Palo Alto, in Redwood City, this same procedure is being followed and you see the oldsters struggling and moaning.” This was in 1957. Hoover later lived in New York City, sure, but I still think we can rule out him parallel parking. He does not mention driving or parking in any of his memoirs. He is a NO.

His successor, Franklin Roosevelt, drove a car equipped with special hand controls. But he lived in a big fancy estate. He did not have to parallel park. He’s a NO as well.

OK. How about Harry Truman?

Well! After his presidency, Truman and his wife Bess went on a 19-day driving tour of some of the country, heading from Independence, Missouri, to the east coast and back. They stayed at a cheap motel. They ate at diners. He was pulled over on the Pennsylvania Turnpike for going 55 mph in the left lane, impeding traffic. If you’re going 55 in the left lane… geeze. This is a tough one. You have to imagine he parked in a garage in New York City. He was in his 60s. I’m going to say NO. The “S” in Harry S Truman stands for Someonewhodoesn’tknowhowtoparallelpark.

Great. Dwight D. Eisenhower is next!

Eisenhower spearheaded the Interstate Highway System, in part because he was on a disastrous 1919 cross-country automobile trip that kept getting stuck in the mud. But we actually have some evidence here. In Penn professor “Camp” David Eisenhower’s Going Home To Glory: A Memoir of Life with Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1961–1969 he shares this anecdote: “Though newly licensed by the state of Pennsylvania to drive a car, Eisenhower had not been dextrous enough to parallel-park the huge Chrysler Imperial.” Receipts! NO.

John F. Kennedy?

Kennedy loved driving around in convertibles. He drove a Ford convertible around Europe. He drove around D.C. when he was a congressman and senator. Larry King wrote in his memoir that he once rear-ended Kennedy in Florida. Look, the Kennedys are rich and he probably used valet parking or garages or a lot on his compound but … if you drove that much by the 1950s in the Northeast United States, you simply must have parallel parked at least once. I’m going to make JFK our first YES.

I can’t believe we finally got one! How about Lyndon B. Johnson?

Man, people really used to use their middle initials more. The “H” in my initials is my mom’s maiden name! Pretty cool, huh? Or not. I dunno. Anyway, Johnson liked to drive, but he lived on a ranch. He “liked to check the variety of license plates in the parking lot” of his presidential library, per historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, but who knows if she copied that from someone else. Johnson was also in Texas, where they were debating parallel parking well into the 1950s. I’m going to say NO here.

Great. We’re almost done.

Not really! I wish we were closer!

Well, let’s get on with it then. Richard Nixon is next.

Nixon, after his presidency, drove a modified Chrysler Imperial once owned by Lee Iacocca after his presidency, per Automotivemap.com. Nixon had some money—he had “an estate” in New Jersey—but by then presidents were not allowed to drive post-presidency. (Johnson was the last one to drive on a public road.) But that doesn’t mean he didn’t know how to do it before. Los Angeles had parallel parking by 1929, and in the 1930s Nixon would drive into Los Angeles to pick up his future wife “and wait until she was ready for him to drive her home.” He definitely parallel parked. This is a YES.

How about Gerald Ford?

Perhaps I know Gerald Ford most from Saturday Night Live reruns on Comedy Central in the 1990s, but I am confident Ford would try to parallel park and crash into both cars on either side of him. He’s a NO.

Jimmy Carter?

There were parallel parking rules in Atlanta as early as 1921, though they weren’t strictly enforced. The president who was once attacked by a rabbit attended the U.S. Naval Academy. By the 1950s the Atlanta Naval Air Base was being lauded for its safe driving records, in part because everyone took a course that taught them how to parallel park. It’s easy to assume Carter took a similar course, and so I’m going to say YES. A fun fact: Jimmy picked up his wife, Rosalynn on their wedding day and drove her to the church.

Aww, isn’t that cute. Didn’t you plan your wedding yourself?

Hey, this is about presidents and cars, not me and my wedding, but I did. I planned our whole wedding in under three weeks. But can we move on? This story is already so late in filing.

Sure. How about Ronald Reagan?

Bob Spitz’s Reagan: An American Journey says that Reagan drove from the midwest to Hollywood after signing a contract to act. Presumably he drove in and around Los Angeles once he got there. I have to imagine he parallel parked sometimes. A somewhat shocking YES here.

George H.W. Bush is next.

Driving-wise, the first President Bush is a combination of Kennedy and Carter. He was a rich dude who grew up on big compounds. He wouldn’t have had to parallel park. He also was in the Navy. Hmm. Hmmmmm. I checked in Jon Meacham’s Destiny and Power, a Bush biography; there are mentions of Bush driving, of him using the family’s Oldsmobile, of him parking next to a store. I will still say NO here. It’s kind of just a feeling.

Anyway, here’s a story from that biography about Barbara Bush driving:

Bush announced his candidacy for the Seventh Congressional District on Saturday, January 15, 1966. The following Monday morning, Barbara was driving six-year-old Doro’s carpool to school. “I saw your Daddy on television last night,” one of the little girls said to Doro. “You did?” said a third child. “What was he doing?”

“Oh, you know,” said Doro, “it was about that erection that he is going to have.” (Barbara’s response: “Needless to say we have worked on the word ‘election’!”)

Cute. Can you do the next two boomer presidents as a group, Clinton and Bush?

I sure can. President Clinton hasn’t driven since his presidency and he says he misses it. He also made a joke about daughter Chelsea parallel parking in a parody of the final scene of The Sopranos in a video for Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign. As of 2015, Arkansas did not require drivers to learn how to parallel park, but … I dunno. He would’ve gotten his license in the ’60s. He knows. He’s a YES.

Another YES is George W. Bush, who was also born in 1946. He was a bit of a drinker before giving it up in 1986 his wife asked him to—hey, George W. Bush and I have something in common—and he drove around Maine and Texas and Jeb Bush can parallel park. I know people think Jeb is the competent one, but come on. His brother was the one who actually won the presidential election.

How about Obama?

Obama had a hand-me-down Ford Granada when he was at Harvard, and bought a Honda when he worked as an organizer on the South Side of Chicago. Clearly he parallel parked at one or both places. Also, Hawaii requires drivers to parallel park for their driving test. I don’t know when that was implemented, but I think it’s clear Obama knows how to parallel park. YES.

Trump?

I’m not going to do any research (“research”) for this one. I don’t need to. Can you imagine, at any point in his life, Donald Trump actually parallel parking? NO. Definitely not. No way. There is no way.

And, finally, Biden.

Yeah. He can parallel park. He’s an “automobile guy.” Of course he can. YES. That brings my total to eight: Kennedy, Nixon, Carter, Reagan, Clinton, Bush 2, Obama, and Biden.

Can any of these guys parallel park now?

Well, no. Biden and the living ex-presidents aren’t allowed to drive anymore, and everyone else is dead.