Add to the well worn Obama-Lincoln comparisons one more similarity: an apparent aversion to big birthday parties. The 16th President never celebrated his birthday in the White House, according to Lincoln biographer Emanuel Hertz. Obama, likewise, is ringing in his 48th on Aug. 4 with a decided lack of pomp. He dined, hooped and ahem bowled with friends at Camp David over the weekend, but he’s spending his big day itself on the job, having lunch with Senate Democrats to discuss his Administration’s accomplishments and goals. Sure, it sounds like a snooze, but throwing a top-notch fête is a tall order when you have to follow more than two centuries of Presidents who knew how to throw a party.
The most famous Presidential birthday bash is undoubtedly J.F.K.’s 45th in 1962, featuring Marilyn Monroe’s sultry serenade, “Happy birthday, Mr. President.” The event fueled speculation that the chief executive and the Playboy centerfold were having an affair. It was also reportedly the model for the 50th birthday party of another philandering President, Bill Clinton a Radio City Music Hall gala that raised $10 million for the Democratic Party in 1996. “For obvious reasons, White House officials said, First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton had something a little different in mind,” the Baltimore Sun reported at the time.
A birthday’s not a birthday without a cake, of course, and Bubba’s that year was so huge that he needed daughter Chelsea’s help blowing the candles. His was far from the biggest, however. At one of the 6,000 parties thrown in honor of Franklin Roosevelt’s birthday in 1934, 52 young girls one for each year of the President’s life paraded through New York’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, wearing frothy white satin-and-chiffon gowns topped by hats shaped like triple-tiered birthday cakes. Each carried in her right hand a long pink electric candle. Clumping into the shape of a birthday cake, they held the candles over their heads, switched on their battery-powered flames, and sang “Happy Birthday.”
Jimmy Carter went for flavor, not volume, on his 53rd birthday in 1977: his single cake was pistachio nut, reportedly his favorite. Ronald Reagan’s 1981 surprise party, by contrast, featured veal, lobster, dancing and a dozen cakes. Two years later, at the end of a televised press conference, Nancy Reagan produced a small, one-candle cake for the President and another for reporters. “You understand we won’t sell out for a piece of cake,” quipped ABC’s Sam Donaldson. “Oh, you’ve sold out for less than that,” replied the President.
Most Presidents also get more cards than they know what to do with: when Teddy Roosevelt turned 50 on Oct. 27, 1908, messenger boys flooded the White House throughout the day bearing letters of congratulation from all over the globe. On cousin Franklin’s 52nd birthday in 1934, 100,000 telegrams poured into the White House. One was 1,280 ft. long and signed by 40,000 people. It took two days to transmit and two messengers to carry.
The biggest Presidential birthday perk of all, though, may be the presents. In 1912 the people of Staunton, Va., Woodrow Wilson’s hometown, gave the President miniature ivory portraits of his parents. George W. Bush in 2006 got a belt buckle from visiting Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and cuff links from his staff. But the best presents of all have been the priceless ones. On Nov. 2, 1920, Warren Harding returned from a golfing excursion to find 55 small pink candles on a frosted white cake. Then he sat back to await the election returns and learned he had been elected President. On May 8, 1945, Harry Truman got an even better gift for his 61st birthday: Germany surrendered in World War II. As the rest of the U.S. celebrated V-E day, Truman shared a cake with secretaries, aides and close friends. With precedents like that, no wonder Obama is working today.
See a TIME health-care poll.