By Kaleena Fraga
Hello History First readers! In lieu of a post this Tuesday I’m delighted to direct you all to Washington Post’s Made by History section, where I had a piece published on Friday.
By Kaleena Fraga
On the day after Valentine’s Day, there’s plenty of presidential material to sort through. There are the longest presidential marriages (George and Barbara Bush are the winners here, with a logged 73 years of marital life), Richard Nixon’s surprisingly poetic love letters to his wife, Pat, and Harry Truman, who says that he first fell for his wife, Bess, when he was six years old.
Among the most poignant, and certainly the most tragic, is the story of Theodore Roosevelt’s Valentine’s Day in 1884. Just twenty-five, he lost both his wife and mother on the same day, to unrelated causes. Both died young–his wife, Alice, was only twenty-two, and had just given birth to their daughter. His mother was forty-nine. Roosevelt marked the day with a simple, wrenching entry in his diary. X The light has gone out of my life.
It was unmistakably the lowest point of Roosevelt’s life. But, as Doris Kearns Goodwin remarked in her Roosevelt biography Bully Pulpit, Roosevelt believed that “frantic activity was the only way to keep sorrow at bay.”
To anyone who has studied Roosevelt’s life, this philosophy is abundantly clear. For those who haven’t, Goodwin describes Roosevelt as someone who simply couldn’t stand still–ever. Journalist Louis Brownlow wrote how Roosevelt, as president, couldn’t stop even for his midday shave. (Journalists were invited to attend, so that Roosevelt could answer questions or give more detail on his ideas). “The President would wave both arms, jump up, speak excitedly, and then drop again into the chair and grin at the barber, who would begin all over.”
When the French ambassador Jules Jusserand visited Roosevelt, dressed for a formal occasion, he was whisked away to the woods with the exuberant president. Describing the event later, Jusserand recalled that they moved at a “breakneck pace” and that when they reached a river, rather than resting, Roosevelt declared that they had better strip “as to not wet our things in the creek.”
After his tragic Valentine’s Day in 1884, Roosevelt would go on to marry his childhood sweetheart, Edith Carow, and have five more children. Roosevelt’s “frantic activity” would propel him to the vice presidency, and then the presidency. If anything, the story of his tragedy is a reminder that someone can go from the lowest of lows to the highest of highs.
By Kaleena Fraga
Yesterday, President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama’s portraits were unveiled for the first time. Suffice to say, they’ll stand out. Barack Obama was painted sitting with an intense look in his eyes, against a backdrop of bright green leaves and flowers. Among other presidential portraits, which have been more traditionally done, it will certainly draw the eye. Both portraits were painted by black artists, Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald–the first to do so.
The Obama portraits themselves are not the only thing that stood out about the unveiling. They were presented at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, where many presidents’ portraits are hung. This in itself isn’t unusual. But over the last couple of decades, the unveiling seems to have traditionally taken place at the White House.
In 2012, George W. Bush and Laura Bush were invited back to the White House for the unveiling of their official portraits. Bush’s father and fellow president George H.W. Bush tagged along too. It was a light hearted occasion, with friendly barbs on both sides.
Likewise, Bill and Hillary Clinton returned to the White House for the first time in 2004 to participate in the unveiling of their official portraits, which would hang in the White House. (Clinton also attended an unveiling at the Smithsonian in 2006, for a portrait that would hang in the museum). It was during this unveiling that President Bush remarked that the portrait of Hillary Clinton, then in the U.S. Senate, would be the only portrait of a sitting senator hanging in the White House.
In 1989, Ronald and Nancy Reagan were invited to the White House for the unveiling of their official portraits. Reagan remarked in his diary that there was “a feeling that [my portrait] could be better. Even the artist, Shikler feels that way & is going to make some changes.” Indeed, Reagan’s portrait was later replaced.
Controversy around a presidential portrait then, is nothing new, including from the subject himself.
Teddy Roosevelt reportedly destroyed the first version of his official portrait, because he thought it made him look like a “mewing cat.” The second painter he hired, John Singer Sargent, found him to be a difficult subject. After the two had tried several different rooms on the first floor, Roosevelt accused Sargent of not knowing what he wanted as they walked up the stairs to the second. Sargent responded that Roosevelt didn’t know how to pose for a portrait. Roosevelt swung around, gripping the bannister, and said, “Don’t I?” The rest is history.
Lyndon Johnson–surprising no one–also had difficulty getting along with his portrait artist, Peter Hurd. He called Hurd’s first attempt “the ugliest thing I ever saw.” When Hurd felt he needed more time, Johnson informed him that Norman Rockwell had been able to complete a portrait of him in 20 minutes. Hurd got his revenge. He gave the first portrait, the one Johnson had hated, to the National Portrait Gallery. It was later replaced.
There has also been a fair amount of symbolism in presidential portraits. The flowers in the bush behind Obama in his portrait represent his life path–they are from cities and countries from around the world where he has lived. Artist Elaine de Kooning depicted John F. Kennedy sitting awkwardly in a chair–a quiet nod to the back problems he suffered from for most of his life. In 2015, Bill Clinton’s portrait artist Nelson Shanks admitted he’d included symbolism of Monica Lewinsky’s infamous blue dress in his painting of the former president. This portrait, according to the Smithsonian, has been “rotated out of view,” and replaced with a portrait of Clinton by artist Chuck Close.
The Obamas’ portraits are colorful, playful, and stand apart from the serious presidential portraits that most Americans are used to seeing. That the unveiling took place away from the White House seems to be a subtle nod to the rocky history between Obama and the current president, Donald Trump. Still, in other ways the portraits follow the unveiling tradition–they caused some controversy, and Barack Obama’s includes symbols of his path to the presidency. At the end of the day, both will be hung in the National Portrait Gallery, among the presidents and first ladies of days past.
By Kaleena Fraga
Last week, Donald Trump made some waves by professing his wish to have a military parade. While many balked at the suggestion, it’s not all together an un-American tradition. Still, past military parades have been held largely for one of two reasons: they were during/directly following a war, or they were held for the inauguration of a president.
There were several military parades in the 1940s to either support troops fighting in WWII, or to celebrate the victory. These parades could last hours–one lasted eleven hours–and would attract thousands and thousands of people. One parade in 1942 even featured an enormous bust of the current president, Franklin Roosevelt (pictured above).
Similarly, two military parades were held following the United States’ victory in the Gulf War, one in Washington D.C. and one in New York City. The D.C. parade attracted 800,000 people and cost a cool twelve million dollars. Aside from the soldiers, wrote the Washington Post, the parade’s real stars were the “seven-block-long array of weaponry that helped defeat Iraq.” The subsequent New York parade, noted The Post, would make D.C.’s look like a dress rehearsal.
Other military parades have coincided with the inauguration of a new president. Both Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy made military parades a part of their inauguration festivities.
Eisenhower had military style parades at both his inaugurations. These parades presented all the latest military technology as well as soldiers, bands, and floats. In 1953 they featured an 85 ton atomic cannon; in 1957 the belle of the ball was the first successful ballistic missile. For Eisenhower, who came to office not as a politician but as a war hero, this sort of display reflected both his background and the country’s stance as a new military power during the early days of the Cold War. Eisenhower’s parade was over the top in other ways as well–in addition to missiles, it reportedly featured hundreds of horses, three elephants, and an Alaskan dog team.
Eisenhower had several advisors who wanted him to throw military parades more often, like those seen in Soviet Russia. But Ike refused. According to historian Michael Beschloss , Eisenhower believed imitating the Soviets would make the United States look weak–there was no need to flaunt the fact that the country was the most powerful on earth.
John F. Kennedy, another Cold War president, likewise had a military style inauguration parade, which, like Ike’s, showed off American military technology. Alongside the dozens of missiles on display, the parade also included soldiers and sailors sitting atop Navy boats, which were towed along the parade route.
In between Kennedy’s inauguration and the Gulf War Victory parades thirty years later, military type parades seem to have fallen out of fashion, including for presidential inaugurations. This may be because of the unpopularity of the Vietnam war–presidents likely did not want to draw too much attention to the military on the days they were inaugurated. Many vets returning from Vietnam found little celebration–rather, they were met with anger. When New York threw a parade for Vietnam veterans in 1985, one vet remarked that the parade was “ten years too late,” and that when he came home originally, “people booed.”
Whether or not Trump’s military parade will happen has yet to be seen. If it does, it will be somewhat of an outlier, as the United States is not celebrating a military victory, attempting to strum up support for its current wars, or marking the inauguration of a new president.
By Kaleena Fraga
Today, February 6th, 2018, would have been the Gipper’s 107th birthday. In celebration, here are ten of History First’s favorite Reagan facts:
2. Reagan won a landslide victory in 1984; his opponent, Walter Mondale, carried only Washington D.C. and his home state of Minnesota.
3. Disunity in the Democratic party in 1980–incumbent Jimmy Carter faced an intraparty challenger in Ted Kennedy-prompted one party operative to declare that the Dems had to take their “unity medicine”: turn around three times and say President Ronald Reagan.
4. Reagan-Bush ran a slogan in 1980 that will sound familiar to many Americans today: “Let’s Make America Great Again.”
5. Reagan was known for his quips. After he survived an assassination attempt in 1981, he famously said to his wife, Nancy, “Honey, I forgot to duck.” When Reagan met his team of surgeons he’s reported to have remarked, “I hope you’re all Republicans.” Facing accusations of growing too old for the office during his reelection campaign in 1984, Reagan averred during a debate: “I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”
6. At the time of his second inauguration, Reagan was 74–making him the oldest president at the beginning of his term.
7. Some found Reagan’s endorsement of his successor, George H.W. Bush, less than enthusiastic. The New York Times called the run up to the endorsement “one of Washington’s longest-running and least suspenseful political dramas,” after Reagan insisted on waiting for the end of the Republican primary to announce his pick. Despite his nickname as the “Great Communicator” and Bush’s eight years of service as VP, Reagan flubbed Bush’s name during the endorsement, pronouncing it George Bosh.
8. Reagan appointed the first female Supreme Court Justice, Sandra Day O’Connor. Her nomination fulfilled one of Reagan’s 1980 campaign promises. O’Connor was confirmed by a Senate vote of 99-0.
9. Famous for loving Jelly Beans, Reagan hated brussel sprouts (maybe never tried roasting them!)
10. Reagan shares a birthday with Aaron Burr, infamous for his role in the death of the first Secretary of the Treasury (and current Broadway star) Alexander Hamilton.
By Kaleena Fraga
On January 30th, Donald Trump followed presidential tradition in obeying the words written in the Constitution: that the executive, from time to time, should give Congress information on the state of the nation.
The first ever address was given by George Washington, in 1790. He and his successor, John Adams, both gave speeches to Congress.
Thomas Jefferson ended the short lived tradition of a spoken address, either because he thought it too king-like, because it took too much time, or perhaps due to his fear of public speaking. He instead sent a letter to Congress.
It would take over one hundred years for the speech to return. Woodrow Wilson went to Congress to give his State of the Union, prompting the tradition that Trump followed on Tuesday.
Although most presidents post-Wilson have elected to give a speech, others have fallen back on written messages to Congress. The American Presidency Project has a comprehensive table of presidents giving oral or written addresses–after Wilson they clearly tilt in favor of addressing Congress in person. Still, there have been moments in recent history in which the president has forgone a formal, oral address to Congress. Truman, Eisenhower, and Carter chose to submit a written message instead of a formal address, when the address coincided with the election of a new president (1953, 1961, and 1981). Carter was the last president to do so.
The reach of the State of the Union (indeed, of all presidential addresses) has grown since its inception. Americans have gone from reading about it in the newspaper to hearing it on the radio (after Calvin Coolidge’s national broadcast in 1923) to seeing it on TV (with Harry Truman’s 1947 address) to sitting at home and watching it on the internet (which Bill Clinton did for the first time in 1997).
Two SOTU traditions were born under Ronald Reagan: first, the invitation of guests by the president and First Lady, and second, a response by the opposition party directly following the president’s speech (this had existed before, but would take place a few days later).
Clinton, perhaps unsurprisingly, holds the record for the longest address at one hour and twenty-eight minutes. Each of his addresses to Congress were around or above the one hour mark. His speech was also the longest at 9,190 words (Washington’s, by comparison, was the shortest at 1,089 words).
Trump’s address on Tuesday was one of the slowest in history–in terms of words per minute. Richard Nixon spoke the most words per minute since the metric was recorded during the Johnson administration. He’s followed by Reagan and Clinton, with a near tie between George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
Only two presidents never delivered a State of the Union, through letter or otherwise–William Henry Harrison and James Garfield. Both died (Harrison of pneumonia, Garfield by assassination) early in their presidencies.
As for that that ubiquitous phrase “my fellow Americans”? Lyndon Johnson coined that for the first time during one of his State of the Union speeches.
By Molly Bloom
Martin Van Buren is generally regarded as a below-average, simply “okay” president and is often overlooked for the two presidents who served contiguous to his term. Andrew Jackson and William Henry Harrison typically garner more attention; the former for his controversial presidency and the infamous Indian Removal Act, and the latter for the shortest presidential term in US history.
Van Buren was the heir apparent to the presidency after a political career culminating with his service as Andrew Jackson’s vice president. Jackson’s support aided Van Buren’s campaign as a member of the relatively new Democratic Party in 1836, leading to his election. However, after a poorly rated presidency that included the “Panic of 1837” economic depression, his 1840 presidential campaign faced considerable opposition. Harrison defeated Van Buren’s run for a second term in 1840 to become the oldest man elected president, and age was a point of contention during his campaign. (Since then, both Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump have been elected in their 70s). Harrison famously delivered a superfluous inaugural address on a frigid day, refusing to wear a coat to demonstrate that despite being 68 years old, he was still robust and fit to serve. He contracted pneumonia during his excessive speech and died a month later.
Van Buren’s 1840 campaign is often credited with the origin of the term “OK,” widely popular both then and now; however, the derivation of “OK” is convoluted. Proposed origins of OK range from the Choctaw okeh which holds the same meaning as the modern okay, to the Greek olla kalla, “all good,” to stories of a baker with the initials OK stamping the letters on army biscuits. Allan Metcalf explains in his book OK: The Improbable Story of America’s Greatest Word that OK grew out of a joke written in March of 1839 by editor Charles Gordon Greene in the Boston Morning Post. The joke was that even if a person couldn’t spell “all correct,” they could “o.k.” something to say it was “oll korrect.” OK came out of a time when intellectuals were using wordplay to publish punchy jabs, and abbreviations were becoming popular- precursors to the modern LOL, JK, and even POTUS.
Born in Kinderhook, New York, Van Buren earned the nickname of “Old Kinderhook,” further popularizing the abbreviation “OK.” His Whig opponent, William Henry Harrison, was famous as “Old Tippecanoe” or the “Hero of Tippecanoe” due to his military victory at the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811. With running-mate John Tyler, Harrison’s campaign song of Tippecanoe and Tyler Too included lyrics criticizing Van Buren, calling him “little.” (Sound familiar?) The song stated, “For Tippecanoe and Tyler too/ And with them we’ll beat little Van, Van, Van/ Van is a used up man.”
OK remained a running theme during the campaign. OK Clubs of Van Buren’s supporters rose up around the country, using the meaning of OK, all correct, to say that voting for Van Buren was giving a stamp of approval. His opponents used the term OK to attack Van Buren, stating that his political ally Andrew Jackson was so unintelligent that he “OK’d” bills during his presidency since he could not properly spell “all correct.” Regardless of the debated origin of OK, Van Buren’s 1840 run certainly helped disseminate the word. OK is used today as nearly any part of speech; as a noun, verb, adjective, interjection, et cetera, and in almost infinite scenarios so that the meaning has a certain amount of ambiguity. Van Buren’s presidency was just OK, or it could have even been considered oll korrect or all correct depending on your point of view, which is ultimately the legacy of Old Kinderhook’s story.