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That Time A President Got In Trouble With The Police


The multiplying investigations into President Trump's life, business, philanthropy and administration loom over the White House. One unresolved question is whether law enforcement has any power over a sitting president, or was that question resolved in 1872?


JOHN MARSZALEK: Well, Ulysses S. Grant was president of the United States, and he loved to race horses.


SIMON: OK, the galloping you hear might be fake. But John Marszalek, who's executive director of the Ulysses S. Grant Presidential Library, is real. And he tells the story of an incident in downtown Washington, D.C.

MARSZALEK: There was a serious accident. A woman was hit with her 6-year-old child roughly at the corner of 13th and M Street. The next day, Grant goes riding through there. And he's going very fast, and he's stopped by a policeman - an African-American by the name of William West. And he stops him and says, Mr. President, you're going too fast. Oh, I know I was going too fast. I promise I'll never do it again.

Well, the next day, this policeman is at the same area. And here comes Grant, racing through that same area. This time, the guy stops him again and says, I'm going to have to arrest you. So he takes him to the station. Grant puts down $20. West is a little embarrassed because, after all, this is the president of the United States. But he did his duty. And nothing is heard of it again.

SIMON: John Marszalek says that Officer West's arrest of a sitting president wasn't controversial.

MARSZALEK: Just the opposite. They thought he was wonderful, that he did the job. And Grant, himself, said, I know I was speeding. You should arrest me. Don't feel badly about it.

The irony of this is that the United States, in the period when Grant is president, which is 1869 to 1877 - that's the heart of the Reconstruction period. And this is the time when Grant becomes president. And he says he becomes president only to make sure that what the Civil War was fought over really worked and that people - and particularly black people - got their fair share. He is the president that does more than anybody else during this long period to make sure that African-Americans get a fair shake. And so the irony of William West, an African-American, stopping him, I think, is wonderful.

SIMON: John Marszalek, executive director of the Grant Presidential Library.

(SOUNDBITE OF LEROY ANDERSON SONG, "SLEIGH RIDE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.