The President With a Lead Foot

Imagine the police officer’s surprise. Washington, D.C. Officer William West was on routine patrol on M Street when he saw a vehicle approaching at a dangerously fast speed. He conducted what he thought would be a routine traffic stop. Much to his astonishment, the driver of the vehicle was the most powerful and famous man in the country, the President of the United States.

Washington, D.C. has never been a stranger to crazy drivers. Nor have there been any shortage of politicians who attempt to use their office to get out of scrapes with the law. Nothing prepared Officer West for the experience of confronting the President with an accusation of breaking the law, however.

The shocked and embarrassed police officer apologized to the President and said he would overlook the infraction. The President would hear nothing of it. Witnesses reported hearing him say, “I was speeding, you caught me and I’ll pay the ticket.”

Officer West was not using radar that day, so we don’t know exactly how fast the President was driving. Any half-decent defense attorney would have been able to get the case dismissed. Instead, the President insisted on being issued the ticket, and he immediately paid the fine.

The $5 fine (approximately $101 in 2022 valuation) was not going to bankrupt the chief executive. The thing that struck everyone was that he didn’t have to pay it at all. In a city where ”politics” has become synonymous with ”dishonesty” and ”entitlement,” the simple quality of personal responsibility spoke louder than any speech on Capitol Hill.

It might have surprised you to learn that the President was the driver. He didn’t have a chauffeur. In fact, he rather enjoyed driving and would have declined a government-appointed driver if one had been offered. That’s an offer he probably should have taken. A few years after being ticketed, he tragically ran into a young boy while driving. The boy survived, but his foot was injured. The President was not ticketed, but he felt horrible about the accident and wrote a letter of apology to the boy.

President Ulysses S. Grant
Ulysses S. Grant

His love of driving fast nearly got him into trouble a few years earlier in another traffic-related incident with political overtones. In the summer of ’66, before becoming President, he was in New York City. Then-President Johnson happened to be in town. When they met in Central Park, the future President challenged Johnson’s driver to a race to the top of Central Park’s Great Hill. The future President won handily.

If you don’t remember reading anything about President Johnson losing a race through Central Park, it’s probably because there were a lot more newsworthy things going on in the summer of ’66.

Just to be clear, we’re talking about the summer of 1866. It was President Andrew Johnson who agreed to race through Central Park. The man who beat him to the top of the hill, who would succeed him in the White House, and be ticketed for speeding, was Ulysses S. Grant.

Presidential historians have not been kind to Grant. His administration was marred by scandals caused by dishonest men whom the President unwisely trusted. The verdict of historians is nearly unanimous, however, that Grant was, himself, honest and honorable to his core.

If you want evidence of that, just look up the record of a certain traffic stop on M Street and the driver who insisted on taking responsibility for his actions.


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