Washington and the Myth of Wooden Teeth

By Kaleena Fraga

Today is George Washington’s 286th birthday. Name a fact–any fact about him. First president? Revolutionary War general? Something about a cherry tree? Wooden teeth?

Of the many myths surrounding Washington, the one about his teeth is among the most popular. In reality, Washington never had wooden teeth. But he did have dental problems, lots of them, requiring the use of dentures for a good chunk of his adult life. Rather than wooden teeth, however, as Ron Chernow writes in his Washington biography, Washington: A Life, most of the teeth in his dentures were likely made from walrus or elephant ivory. Chernow postulates that the myth arose from the “gradual staining of hairline fractures in the ivory that made it resemble a wood grain.” Washington also used several of his own pulled teeth in his dentures, and there’s documentation of his purchase of teeth from slaves (a grotesque, but common practice in the 18th century).

1789_GeorgeWashington_byChristianGullagerWashington found his dental problems highly embarrassing. They made his lips stick out, and made it hard for him to speak. The fake teeth often became discolored, once so much that Washington sent them to his dentist, John Greenwood for repair. Greenwood noted that they had turned black–possibly because the president drank so much port wine. That Washington felt so self-conscious about his teeth may explain his solemn look in most of his portraits.

Washington’s dental ordeals sound terrible–both painful and embarrassing, especially for someone who, as president and as a beloved public figure, was expected to entertain guests and speak publicly. His wife, Martha, also suffered from dental problems and both of them eventually wore dentures. Martha encouraged her grandchildren to invest in toothbrushes and cleansing powders to avoid the turmoil that she and her husband endured over their teeth.

By the time he became president, Washington had only one natural tooth remaining. When this tooth had to be pulled, Washington gifted it to his dentist, Greenwood. Greenwood originally drilled a hole through the tooth and tied it to his watch chain. He became worried it would break, and transferred it to a locket. On the locket is inscribed: “In New York 1790, Jn Greenwood made Pres Geo Washington a whole sett of teeth. The enclosed tooth is the last one which grew in his head.”

For those curious to see Washington’s smile in person, Mount Vernon has his dentures–the only full set in existence.

“My Fellow Americans”: A Brief History of the State of the Union

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.

teddy and wilson
Teddy Roosevelt depicted reacting to Wilson’s spoken SOTU

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 bjctwenty-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.

As Seen on TV: Presidents & the Press

By Kaleena Fraga

On this day in 1961, John Kennedy gave the first live televised press conference. The exchange can be watched in its entirety below:

Kennedy had observed what an effective medium television had been for him during the debates in 1960, and was determined to utilize it in his presidency–popular political lore says that TV viewers picked Kennedy as the debate winner over the sickly, sweaty Nixon, but listeners of the radio thought that Nixon’s deeper voice gave him the victory.

Kennedy was not the first president to utilize television during his press conferences, but he was the first to do it live. Dwight Eisenhower first held a televised press conference in 1955. Ike walked up to the podium, looked over the gathered reporters, stuck one hand in his pocket and said, “Well, I see we’re trying a new experiment this morning. I hope it doesn’t prove to be a disturbing influence.”

In between 1961 and his death in 1963, Kennedy gave 65 press conferences, about twice a month, an average of every sixteen days.  He and Eisenhower both gave about 700 public addresses, big and small, which says something about the pace of the Kennedy White House–Eisenhower had eight years in power, Kennedy less than three. Kennedy always went in prepared to meet the press–his aide Pierre Salinger described how they would go over 20-30 possible questions the press might ask the night before.

Roosevelt greets reporters at his first press conference, 1933

It was certainly a more studious method than that of Franklin Roosevelt, who, during his first press conference, let 125 reporters into the Oval Office to shoot their questions at him. The three presidents before him–Hoover, Coolidge, and Harding–had required that all questions were written down and submitted in advance. The new system was met with relief and excitement from the reporters who followed the White House. Roosevelt, with the advantage of being in office for an unprecedented 12 years, gave more news conferences than any other president. Over his tenure, he would give 881. It was no wonder that, after his first address, the assembled reporters gave the new president a round of applause.

Roosevelt talking to reporters, 1906

Teddy Roosevelt, too, had a nonchalant attitude toward the press. According to biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin, Teddy understood that the strength of his message relied on his relationship with the press (Roosevelt is the one, after all, who coined the term “bully pulpit”). Kearns writes that Roosevelt “called reporters by their first names, invited them to meals, took questions during his midday shave…[and] brought them aboard his private railroad car during his regular swings around the country.”

Curiously, perhaps because early century presidents lacked other methods of communication, the number of news conferences given per year gradually declined toward the end of the 20th century. In other words, as the use of television grew, presidents used it less, at least for press conferences. According to the American Presidency Project, Coolidge, over six years in office, delivered an average of 72.9 news conferences a year, 407 total, barely beating FDR’s average of 72.66. (Somewhat surprisingly, since Coolidge was known by the moniker “Silent Cal.”) By contrast, more modern presidents have given far fewer. Ronald Reagan gave the least, with an average of just 5.75 conferences per year.

That’s more than the current president. Donald Trump still has three years in his term, but as of January 2018, he’s given just one solo press conference.

Inauguration 1961: Truman, Kennedy & a Return to the White House

By Kaleena Fraga

January 20th is full of stories of the passage of power from one administration to the next. Since 1936 presidents have been inaugurated on this day, so so there is plenty to remember–FDR marking the beginning of his unprecedented 3rd and 4th terms; Eisenhower playfully lassoed by a cowboy; Jimmy Carter & Rosalynn Carter walking the inauguration route in spite of the protests of the Secret Service–the list goes on and on.

Still, there’s one event worth reflecting on which happened the next day, on January 21st, 1961, and this is President Truman’s invitation to the White House. It was his first time returning to the White House since he’d left eight years earlier.

ike campaignTruman had left in 1953 after a hard defeat for his party. Eisenhower had won a decisive victory over the Democratic candidate, Adlai Stevenson, whom Truman encouraged to run, becoming the first Republican victor in 20 years. Still, Truman was gracious in defeat. He invited Ike to the White House in November 1952 to talk about the job, but later wrote that all he had said to Ike “went into one ear and out the other.” He later postulated that Ike, a war hero, would be unsuited to the task of president. “He’ll sit right here and he’ll say do this, do that! And nothing will happen. Poor Ike–it won’t be a bit like the Army. He’ll find it very frustrating.”

Inauguration itself had been an awkward affair. Eisenhower, determined to not step foot in the White House that day until he could do so as president, disregarded the tradition of calling on the current president & first lady. The Eisenhowers declined the Trumans’ invitation to lunch, or even a cup of coffee, and did not come out of their car until Truman appeared outside of the White House. As they drove off, an aid to President Truman remarked that he was glad to not be in the car. eisenhower-truman1

Despite all this, Truman had invited Eisenhower’s son, John, currently serving in Korea, back to the States to watch his father’s inauguration. Neither son nor father knew it had been the president’s orders until Eisenhower asked Truman in the car. According to Eisenhower, Truman simply replied: “I did.”

But any thaw that took place during the car ride had little effect on the Truman/Eisenhower relationship. Shortly after the ceremony ended, Truman returned to Missouri, where he’d largely remain for Ike’s next two terms. It seems the two presidents had little contact during that time. When Ike was in Missouri Truman tried to set up a meeting, but was told that the president’s schedule was much too full. Later in life, according to Truman biographer David McCullough, he could hardly refer to Eisenhower without using profanity.

Truman didn’t exactly start off much better with the man destined to replace Eisenhower. During the Democratic convention in 1961, Truman spoke out against Kennedy, saying:

“I am deeply concerned and troubled about the situation we are up against in the world now…That is why I hope someone with the greatest possible maturity and experience would be available at this time. May I urge you to be patient?”

Kennedy shrugged off the criticism. He had fourteen years in major political office–that was enough.

When Kennedy did become the nominee, Truman offered up his services. But he had his doubts. Writing to his former Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, he declared that “[we] are stuck with the necessity of taking the worst of two evils or none at all. So–I’m taking the immature Democrat as the best of the two. Nixon is impossible. So, there we are.”

Despite his lackluster support, Truman, then seventy-six, went in all for Kennedy. He traveled to nine states and delivered thirteen speeches in support of the Democratic candidate.

Kennedy was grateful. As a gesture of thanks, he made Truman his first official guest to the White House, the day after his inauguration in 1961.

Truman, a talented piano player, was even invited to take up the keys after a formal dinner.

truman piano wh

Truman later wrote of his disappointment that Kennedy did not call on him for advice during his presidency. Later in Kennedy’s term, Truman wrote Acheson to say, “You must remember that our head of State is young, inexperienced and hopeful. Lets hope the hopeful works.”

In any case, Kennedy’s overture to Truman is a reminder that inaugurations don’t have to be chilly affairs–rather, they can be an occasion for mending bridges. Truman would certainly note–especially after the Bay of Pigs–that current presidents have much to learn from the men who occupied the office before them. A lesson that could be applied to 1961 as any political era.


Special thanks to David McCullough’s fantastic tome “Truman”

A Busy Day for JFK (& RMN)

By Kaleena Fraga

January 3rd is a day that holds special significance for John F. Kennedy. In 1947, it was the day that he was sworn into Congress for the first time as a member of the House of Representatives. On January 3rd in 1960, 13 years later, it was reported that JFK had thrown his hat in the ring to be the next president.

JFK wasn’t the only young Congressman to be sworn in that day in 1947. He was joined by his future political rival Richard Nixon.

Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy, circa 1947

Although they would face each other in the bitterly contested election of 1960, Kennedy and Nixon were friendly in the House. According to the 2017 Nixon biography Richard Nixon: The Life by John A. Farrell, the two young congressmen once shared a train car back to D.C. after a cordial debate in West Virginia. They bonded over their passion for international affairs. “Neither one of us was a backslapper,” Nixon wrote later. “He was shy…but it was a shyness born of an instinct that guarded privacy and concealed emotion. I understood these qualities because I shared them.” The Nixons were later invited to attend Jack Kennedy’s wedding.

When Nixon ran for Senate he had the support of the Kennedy clan. According to Farrell’s biography, John Kennedy stopped by Nixon’s office with a check from his father for one thousand dollars. The message? Joseph Kennedy wanted Nixon to win.

By 1960, the two would be rivals. Although Kennedy had followed Nixon to the Senate, Nixon had become Dwight D. Eisenhower’s vice president. While Kennedy finished his Senate term, Nixon spent eight years traveling the world on Ike’s behalf. In 1960 Nixon would argue experience; Kennedy would insist that after eight years of Ike, the country was ready for something new. Kennedy officially announced his candidacy on January 2nd–on January 3rd the announcement made front page news as Kennedy added his name to a growing list of White House-hungry Democrats. A week later, on January 9th, Richard Nixon likewise declared his candidacy.


On another January day in 1961, Nixon (the outgoing vice president) would stand behind Kennedy to watch his rival take the oath of office.

January 1961. Nixon is standing behind Kennedy, to the right of the frame

Although the Nixon/Kennedy relationship soured, Nixon later penned a thoughtful note to Jackie Kennedy following her husband’s assassination in Dallas in 1963.

“Dear Jackie

In this tragic hour Pat and I want you to know that our thoughts and prayers are with you. While the hand of fate made Jack and me political opponents I always cherished the fact that we were personal friends from the time we came to the Congress together in 1947…If in the days ahead we could be helpful in any way we shall be honored to be at your command.

Dick Nixon”

Jackie later replied, thanking Nixon for his note, and writing:

“Dear Mr. Vice President –

I do thank you for your most thoughtful letter –

You two young men – colleagues in Congress – adversaries in 1960 – and now look what has happened – Whoever thought such a hideous thing could happen in this country –…please be consoled by what you already have – your life and your family…


Jacqueline Kennedy”

See full letters here and here


A Brief History of Impeachment

By Kaleena Fraga

Benjamin Franklin noted that throughout history, once political leaders had “rendered [themselves] obnoxious,” the people had no other choice but to assassinate them. Instead, Franklin thought, the Constitution should allow Congress to punish the president when he deserved it, but also give him a trial to prove his innocence.

This week has a couple of significant impeachment anniversaries. First, Bill Clinton was impeached by the House of Representatives on December 19th, 1998. He faced charges of perjury and obstruction of justice related to his affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. To the charge of perjury, five Republicans broke from the party and voted against impeachment. However, five Democrats also voted for impeachment. Two other charges–another perjury charge and one abuse of power charge–were defeated.

Clinton would go on to be acquitted in the Senate. A two-thirds majority would have been needed to convict him–the perjury charge was rejected 55 to 45 and the Senate was split 50-50 on obstruction of justicewsj.jpg. Democrats voted together, against impeachment, and they were joined by five Republicans on the obstruction-of-justice charge.

It had been 131 years since a president faced an impeachment hearing–Andrew Johnson was similarly impeached by the House but acquitted by the Senate in 1868. Johnson’s charges were quite different from Clinton’s–the House accused him of violating the Tenure of Office Act–but both men faced Congresses hostile to their presidencies.

In between Johnson and Clinton sits Richard Nixon, who was not impeached but who faced impeachment charges. He resigned before the trial began.

Also on December 19th was the swearing in of Nelson Rockefeller as vice president. Nixon’s vice president, Gerald Ford, had become president when his predecessor chose to resign rather than be impeached. Ford then had the power to appoint his own vice president (pending Senate confirmation) just as Nixon had appointed him when his original vice president, Spiro Agnew, resigned following accusations of corruption and tax fraud.

This must have especially stung for Nixon, who had faced Rocky as a political rival in the 1960 and 1968 elections.

In contentious and politically divided times, the “I” word is often thrown around. Billionaire Tom Steyer is currently offering 10 million dollars to anyone who provides information that leads to Donald Trump’s impeachment. At town halls during the Obama presidency, some Republican leaders agreed with their constituents that Obama should be impeached, but none ever drew up charges against him.

Has the nation treated impeachment as the founders intended? They disagreed on the matter themselves. Many–uncomfortable with the idea of removing an executive from power, as this sort of thing had never been tried with, say, a king–argued that the legislative branch would abuse its power. Elbridge Gerry (of gerrymandering infamy) protested that a good president shouldn’t have to worry about a legislature which honorably represented the people’s interests. “A good magistrate will not fear them,” he said. “A bad one ought to be kept in fear of them.”

RIP George Washington, and the Tradition of Life Masks

By Kaleena Fraga

bust gw
The Houdon bust

Today, December 14, 2017 is the 218th anniversary of the death of America’s first president, George Washington. At the time, for the many people who loved and admired George Washington, it wouldn’t be the last time they saw his face. Not only had countless portraits been made of the man but he’d also had a life mask made by French sculptor Jean Antoine Houdon. Houdon also created the (perhaps more well known) terracotta bust of Washington.

Washington was reportedly fascinated by the process. Houdon had been brought to Mount Vernon by Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, and spent two weeks there to observe Washington’s mannerisms and dress. Although the process was uncomfortable for Washington (it involved lying flat on his back, with two large quills up his nose so he could breathe–read more here) it probably traumatized his young granddaughter Nelly, who walked in on the creation of the mask.

tj life mask
Perhaps this experience is why Jefferson looks so strained

He certainly had a better experience with it than Jefferson, who reportedly almost died while having his own life mask fitted by John H.I. Browere. Browere left the mask on for an hour, instead of the customary twenty minutes. Jefferson, unable to breathe, had to bang his fist against a nearby chair to draw attention to his plight. Afterwards he wrote his friend James Madison:

“I was taken in by Mr. Browere…He was obliged to use freely the mallet and chisel to break [the mask] into pieces and get a piece at a time…I was quite shaken, and there became real danger that the ears would leave from the head sooner than from the plaster.”

Jon Meacham writes (again from his Jefferson biography, Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power) that it was Jefferson’s butler, Burwell Colbert, who heard the ruckus and alerted Browere. Jefferson, Meacham notes, was saved by a slave.

Interestingly, the life mask of John Adams (Jefferson’s frenemy) was also created by Browere.

The practice didn’t die out after the Founding Fathers’ generation. Abraham Lincoln also underwent the process–twice. The first was done in 1860, the year Lincoln was elected to the presidency, by Leonard Volk. The second was made five years later, in 1865, by Clark Mills. Five hard years–the weight of the presidency, the Civil War, the death of his son, Willie–are clearly etched on his face. Two months after the mask was made, Lincoln would be killed by an assassin’s bullet.

With the invention of the photograph, this style of remembrance has gone out fashion. Celebratory busts and portraits aside, life masks seem to reveal something much more human in these extraordinary men.