Factchecking 43’s Fuzzy Math

George Bush has been giving us fuzzy math for eight long years, from faulty punch-card ballots, to misunderestimates on everything from Medicare costs to the Iraq War bill. Now, here’s one more error that must be fixed for history’s sake: the presidential tally.

Bush’s nickname for Clinton—he has them for most everyone—is 42, a reference to his standing as the 42nd president of the United States, and his dad, George Sr., Bush calls 41. That makes him 43, and our next president 44. Straightforward enough math, simple addition, right? Yeah, but he still has it wrong, and so does everyone else who plays along. Here’s why:

Grover Cleveland was president from 1885-89, and again from 1893-1897, with Benjamin Harrison serving the term in between. By current numeration, then, Cleveland was our 22nd and our 24th president, but this is just a matter of non-consecutive termage. To those who say, “he served as both 22 and 24” well then by that logic George Washington was both our 1st and 2nd president, Thomas Jefferson our 4th and 5th, and so on with all of our multi-termers who were newly elected each time.

Whitehouse.gov counts Cleveland twice and lands at 43 currently, but if we are truly talking terms then we have way more than 43 terms served. The sum total is the number of presidents we’ve had, not the number of terms served by all presidents. And any way you slice it, even if you want to parse out Cleveland’s terms into two eras, we have actually only had 42 presidents total, meaning at least an asterisk is in order. Because what are people conveying when they refer to that historical number—that 43 men have served in that office. Besides who would vote to give Grover Cleveland, of all presidents, two ticks and guys like Teddy, FDR, and Washington only one?

This might be trivial trivia in the grand scheme of things, but it’s worth correcting so we are historically accurate in referring to the chronology and legacy of our executive leaders. And even if the numbering system stays as is, people should take care not to say Obama/McCain is our 44th president, because, no matter how much they might want to flee from the association, one of these men will in fact be #43.

Consider this too: while Bush may have fooled us twice, wouldn’t it be nice if 43 were a do-over?