First Lady Feature: Barbara Bush

By Kaleena Fraga

On a late spring day in 1990, Barbara Bush stepped up to the podium at Wellesley College to deliver the school’s commencement address. Her invitation had prompted furor across the student body. To many students at Wellesley, Barbara Bush was no role model. One hundred and fifty students signed a petition which read:

‘Wellesley teaches that we will be rewarded on the basis of our own merit, not on that of a spouse. To honor Barbara Bush as a commencement speaker is to honor a woman who has gained recognition through the achievements of her husband, which contravenes what we have been taught over the last four years at Wellesley.”

Her defenders said the outrage was generational. When asked about the controversy herself, the First Lady said that she understood the students’ perspective. “They’re 21 years old and they’re looking at life from that perspective,” Mrs. Bush said. “I don’t disagree with what they’re looking at. But I don’t think they understand where I’m coming from. I chose to live the life I’ve lived, and I think it’s been a fabulously exciting, interesting, involved life. In my day, they probably would have been considered different. In their day, I’m considered different. Vive la difference.”

Her husband didn’t mince words. In his diary, George H.W. Bush wrote that the “elitist kids” of Wellesley dismissed her accomplishments as a wife, a mother, a volunteer, and a “great leader for literacy.”

Barbara Bush was made of presidential stuff long before she met her husband–she’s a descendent of Franklin Pierce, the 14th president. She and Abigail Adams are also the only women in history to be both a wife and a mother to a president.

bush and hwBarbara Bush met her husband at sixteen and married him four years later, after his brush with death during WWII. Before marriage Mrs. Bush had enrolled in Smith College–she was a voracious reader as a girl–and helped out in the war effort by working at a nuts and bolts factory in the summer of 1943. As the wife of George H.W. Bush–who, over the course of their marriage, was the Ambassador to the United Nations, the Director of the C.I.A., and the Vice President of the United States–Mrs. Bush had the opportunity to see the world. She oversaw moving her family twenty-nine times.

Within a few weeks of her husband’s inauguration to the presidency in 1989, Barbara Bush made literacy her cause as First Lady. At the launch of the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy, Mrs. Bush stated that, “In 10 years of traveling around the United States of America, visiting literary programs, libraries, kindergarten groups, day-care centers, single-parent classes for high school dropouts, public housing projects, food banks – you name it, I’ve visited it – it has become very apparent to me that we must attack the problem of a more literate America through the family. We all know that adults with reading problems tend to raise children with reading problems.” The foundation today is active in all 50 states. It seeks to support parents who are improving their reading level, with the goal that the parents will read to their children.

Although during her husband’s presidency Barbara Bush rarely drew attention on her bbush conventionown political views, she was more outspoken before and after H.W.’s term in office. During his vice presidential run she expressed support for the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment and embrace pro-choice views on abortion. During the 1992 presidential campaign, Mrs. Bush stated that the abortion debate had no place in the party platform at all. Abortion, she said, “was a personal thing.”

Barbara Bush would also redefine the role of first spouses when she became the first First Lady to deliver prepared remarks at the 1992 Republican Convention. During the (increasingly bitter) campaign, Mrs. Bush also defended Hillary Clinton, who was under fire for her own outspoken political views.

As for that speech in 1990, Barbara Bush (whose husband voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016) left the Wellesley class of ’90 with this:

“Who knows? Somewhere out in this audience may even be someone who will one day  follow in my footsteps and preside over the White House as the president’s spouse–and I wish him well.”

Part III: A Ship in the Storm–Lincoln’s Steady Hand in the Tumultuous Final Years of War

By Duane Soubirous 

January 1, 1863, the day Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation and declared freedom for all slaves living in the Confederate States of America, was just like any other New Year’s Day to those slaves. In order to gain freedom, they would need to escape behind Union lines or wait for Union troops to advance past them. Slaves living in the loyal border states and parts of the Confederacy that had been pacified by the Union army were kept in bondage. The Emancipation Proclamation freed no one the moment it was issued, but it was the beginning of the end of slavery in the United States. Three years later, slavery was abolished throughout the U.S. with the ratification of the 13th Amendment.

Though the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect on Jan. 1, 1863, Lincoln had issued a preliminary proclamation 100 days earlier, on Sept. 22., This warned that emancipation was coming, but rebels could keep their slaves if they put down their arms and rejoined the Union (no one took that offer). Midterm elections in November 1862 showed that many in the Union agreed with Confederate president Jefferson Davis, who called the Emancipation Proclamation “the most execrable measure recorded in the history of guilty man.”

1864Racial violence perpetrated both sides of the conflict. That year, the Democratic Party ran a racist, anti-war campaign, warning that emancipation meant black people would move North in droves and force whites out of their homes. “The Constitution as it is, the Union as it was, and the negroes where they are,” was their campaign slogan. Democrats gained 34 seats in the House of Representatives, won gubernatorial races in New York and New Jersey, and won control of several state legislatures. In 1863, Horatio Seymour, the Democratic governor of New York, said, “I assure you I am your friend,” to anti-draft rioters who had lynched black doormen and burned down the Colored Orphan Asylum in New York City. 

Unfazed by backlash to the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln pressed for emancipation in the loyal states. He encouraged a constitutional amendment that would gradually emancipate slaves (until 1900) and provide compensation to slaveholders. Lincoln believed that his emancipation plan for the border states was “one of the most potent, and swift means of ending” the Civil War. “Let the states which are in rebellion see, definitely and certainly, that, in no event, will the states you represent ever join their proposed Confederacy, and they can not, much longer maintain the contest.” To people who didn’t want tax dollars spent on buying slaves, Lincoln replied that compensated emancipation would cost less than a prolonged war: “I had not asked you to be taxed to buy negroes, except in such way, as to save you from greater taxation to save the Union exclusively by other means.” Lincoln also warned that failing to accept gradual, compensated emancipation might lead to immediate, uncompensated emancipation.

  Many soldiers who had enlisted to defend the Union had reservations about fighting to free the slaves. Lincoln deployed his power of persuasion in a letter to be read at a Union rally in Springfield, Illinois: “You say you will not fight to free negroes. Some of them seem willing to fight for you; but, no matter. Fight you, then exclusively to save the Union. I issued the proclamation on purpose to aid you in saving the Union.”

 General Ulysses S. Grant was one soldier who didn’t need convincing. He wrote in a usgletter to Lincoln, “I have given the subject of arming the negro my hearty support. This, with the emancipation of the negro, is the heavyest blow yet given to the Confederacy … by arming the negro we have added a powerful ally. They will make good soldiers and taking them from the enemy weakens him in the same proportion they strengthen us. I am therefore most decidedly in favor of pushing this policy to the enlistment of a force sufficient to hold all the South falling into our hands and to aid in capturing more.”

 After the major Union victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg in July 1863, the war dragged on through 1864 and Democratic anti-war sentiment rose again. Democrats believed the war could end and the Union restored by negotiating a peace agreement that upheld slavery. Such a treaty would overturn Emancipation Proclamation, which said slaves with disloyal masters “are, and henceforward shall be free; and that the Executive government of the United States, including the military and naval authorities thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of said persons.” Lincoln was up for reelection that year, and though his electoral prospects looked grim that summer, he decided to hold firm on his proclamation and insist upon abolitionism in any peace talks.

By the fall of 1864, a string of Union victories dampened anti-war sentiment, and Lincoln and Republican legislators were resoundingly endorsed by the electorate. During the lame-duck session of Congress, when many Democratic congressmen had only a few months left before being replaced by Republicans, Lincoln pressed the House to pass the 13th Amendment, which had passed the previous April with the requisite 2/3 majority in the Senate. After much personal lobbying by Lincoln, just enough lame-duck Democrats either abstained or voted yes to clear the amendment through Congress on Jan. 31, 1865. It was then sent to the states and finally ratified in December 1865.

2nd inag abeLincoln’s second inauguration happened on March 4, 1865, when Union victory was imminent. He closed his Second Inaugural Address by extending an olive branch to the defeated Confederates and looking ahead to Reconstruction: “With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and lasting peace among ourselves, and with all nations.”

After news reached Washington that Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, crowds gathered at the White House to hear Lincoln speak. Instead of delivering a bombastic victory speech, he addressed Rreconstruction. It was the last speech he gave, and true to form, he encouraged moderation. Radical Republicans didn’t want to accept Louisiana back into the Union because its constitution didn’t enfranchise black people. While Lincoln said that he personally supported enfranchisement for “the very intelligent” and “those who serve our cause as soldiers,” he asked, “Will it be wiser to take [Louisiana’s constitution] as it is, and help to improve it; or to reject, and disperse it? Can Louisiana be brought into proper practical relation with the Union sooner by sustaining, or by discarding her new State Government?”

  A distraught Confederate sympathizer named John Wilkes Booth attended Lincoln’s speech and was outraged to hear Lincoln endorse black suffrage in Louisiana. “That means n—-er citizenship. Now by God I’ll put him through. That is the last speech he will ever make,” Booth reportedly said. He assassinated Lincoln three days later.

Abraham Lincoln closed the Gettysburg Address by saying, “We here highly resolve that these dead men shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” Freedom for all Americans was a work in progress when he died, but it began when Lincoln insisted that for slavery to end, its expansion must be culled.

Lincoln is exalted as a god among men today; he is seen as the savior of black American slaves, and the sole reason that slavery ended. Like all people, Lincoln was flawed–his actions and thoughts, judged by today’s society, would make many uncomfortable. Still, he believed in moderation, in fairness, and in the importance of listening to both sides. This, in any era, makes him one of the nation’s most remarkable leaders. He certainly deserves credit for his handling of the Civil War years.

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.

Please Pose, Mr. President: A Brief History of Presidential Portraits

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 bush portraitunveiling 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.

reagan portraitIn 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, tr portraitbecause 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.