American Presidents & Royal Weddings

By Kaleena Fraga

Royal wedding fever swept the world last week as Prince Harry of England married Meghan Markle, an American actress. Alongside the nuptials were questions in the United States surrounding the invitations–would Donald Trump merit an invite? Would former president (and friend to the groom) Barack Obama?

In the end, neither attended. This in itself isn’t unusual. Over the past several royal weddings, American presidents have sent notes of congratulations or perhaps a high-level envoy, but have never attended  themselves.

In 1947, President Harry Truman sent a notes of congratulations following the engagement of Elizabeth & Phillip to both the bride-to-be and her parents, the King and Queen of England. There’s no indication that Truman was invited or sought to attend.

truman telegram to king

Instead, Truman assigned an envoy to represent the U.S. government at the wedding, the ambassador to Great Britain Lewis Douglas.

Neither President Eisenhower or his wife Mamie were invited to the next royal wedding, that of Queen Elizabeth’s sister, Margaret, in 1960. The American ambassador to the U.K had to convince the president to send a gift. Eisenhower objected because he’d never received any formal notification, but eventually followed his ambassador’s advice and sent a “small wedding ring ashtray.”

The next royal wedding was in 1981, when Queen Elizabeth’s son Charles married Diana Spencer. Ronald Reagan did not attend, although it appears he was invited. He sent the first lady, Nancy Reagan, to represent his administration. The New York Times speculated that President Reagan did not want the wedding to be his first trip to Europe.

Nancy Reagan created a bit of a stir in Great Britain, where one tabloid dedicated its Royal wedding 1981 - Nancy Reaganfront page to her decision to not bow to the Queen. The Guardian expressed irritation at her refusal to reveal any details about her wedding outfit until 24 hours before Diana released hers. And Nancy Reagan’s presence also prompted speculation of where she would sit during the ceremony. “I can’t image she’d be in the front row,” said a palace spokeswoman at the time. “Obviously, there are lots of other people besides Nancy Reagan coming.”

At Prince William and Kate Middleton’s wedding in 2011, no heads of state were invited, so the Obamas did not attend. However, the lack of invitation did release a fury of speculation as to whether or not it was a “snub” of the American president. The Daily Mail noted that since Prince William was not yet heir to the throne, his wedding was not a state occasion. As such, it was normal that heads of state were not invited.

There does seem to be somewhat of a tradition regarding gifts–President Truman and President Reagan both sent the respective newlyweds Steuben glass bowls. Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, however, requested donations to seven charities of their choice in lieu of gifts. Accordingly, Donald & Melania Trump confirmed via a White House spokeswoman that they will be making such a donation.

Reagan & the Radio; Trump & Twitter: Provocative Statements & the Path to Peace

By Kaleena Fraga

When Donald Trump tweeted about North Korea’s Kim Jong-un last year, mocking him as “Little Rocket Man” and a “madman”, some worried that Trump’s cavalier attitude could lead to a nuclear war. The president often speaks off the cuff, without prepared remarks vetted by advisors. During a meeting on the opioid crisis, Trump improvised the now infamous line “fire and fury” to describe the American response to any North Korean provocation.

Trump isn’t the only president to spark fears of war through idle talk (or tweets). Ronald Reagan did the same in 1984. Now, Trump finds himself similarly faced with the possibility of peace after much stone-throwing on both sides.

In the age before Twitter, Reagan gave weekly radio addresses every Saturday starting in 1982. He would give 331 such addresses during his time in the White House. (In his first year as president, Trump tweeted 2,461 times). During a sound check for one of Reagan’s radio addresses, the president joked:

“My fellow Americans, I’m pleased to tell you today that I’ve signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.”

News of the remark quickly leaked, to the outrage of American allies and adversaries abroad. The central Soviet news agency, TASS (Telegraph Agency of the Soviet Union) released a statement condemning “this unprecedented and hostile attack by the U.S. president…this kind of behavior is incompatible with the great responsibility borne by heads of nuclear states for the destinies of their own people and mankind.”

Likewise, when Trump tweeted:

North Korea responded by calling the president a frightened “lunatic.” Many in the American political class condemned the president’s tweet as overtly provocative and undiplomatic.

Reagan would go on to develop a close relationship with the Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev, and the two of them would work together to reduce the number of nuclear weapons–boosting Reagan, but dooming Gorbachev. Trump likewise is flirting with peace in North Korea. His recently appointed Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, met with Kim Jong-un over Easter, and high-level talks seem imminent.

Trading barbs is the easy part–now the Trump administration, like Reagan’s, must see if they can find diplomatic footing with the North Koreans in search of stability on the Korean peninsula.

President Jimmy Carter and the Olympics Boycott of 1980

By Molly Bloom

As another set of Olympic Games comes to a close, the world is left with the usual rivalries, upsets, records, and inspiring stories that go down in history. In particular, much press before and during the 2018 Winter Olympics has focused on the Russian doping scandal and Vladimir Putin’s claims that the United States is behind the bans on Russian athletes, renewing tensions between Russia and the United States.

Many presidents and world leaders have used the athletic competition as a platform to discuss politics. Citizens rally around their athletes, resulting in a heightened sense of pride and patriotism, and the Olympics offer an international forum to discuss global relations.

newsweek1980One of the most well-known examples is President Jimmy Carter’s boycott of the 1980 Summer Games in Moscow to protest the Soviet Union’s politics. After a relatively quiet period of the Cold War, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in late 1979, and several countries condemned the action. Threats by Carter included trade embargoes and a boycott of the Summer Games if the Soviets did not remove their forces from Afghanistan. Carter was not generally considered to be skilled at international politics, and his action was seen by many as a weak attempt at asserting himself. It is worth noting that his term was ending in 1980, and he would soon be running for reelection.

In a statement on January 4th, 1980, Carter said, “Although the United States would prefer not to withdraw from the Olympic games scheduled in Moscow this summer, the Soviet Union must realize that its continued aggressive actions will endanger both the participation of athletes and the travel to Moscow by spectators who would normally wish to attend the Olympic games.” He set a deadline of one month for troops to pull out of Afghanistan, which critics interpreted as a strangely specific ultimatum.

Ronald Reagan, running for the Republican nomination, was mixed in his response to Carter’s boycott. Reagan first said that the athletes should be allowed to decide whether or not they wanted to go, that it wasn’t the government’s place to direct them one way or the other. He later agreed with Carter that the United States “should boycott the Olympic games,” drawing criticism from right wing media and his Republican rivals, notably his future Vice President George H.W. Bush, of being “wishy-washy” on the issue. Reagan later stated that “if [Carter] cannot persuade the athletes to stay away from Moscow he has only himself to blame.” Reagan, playing politics, knew how to strike Carter where it hurt—his weakness at home and abroad. 

Senator Ted Kennedy, who was running against Carter in the 1980 Democratic Primary, criticized Carter for the decision as well. Kennedy said, “I will support a boycott of the Olympics, but I want to make clear that the embargo and the boycott are basically symbols and they are not an effective substitute for foreign policy.” Carter’s competition on both sides of the aisle made the Olympic boycott a topic of debate. Both Republicans and Democrats used it as an indication of weakness in his presidency.

The tension eventually led to the largest boycott of the modern Olympic Games when the Soviets did not remove military forces from Afghanistan; sixty-five additional countries did not attend for political or economic reasons. Many U.S. allies joined the boycott, and for others, it was an indication of support for anti-Soviet sentiments.

Notably, the Winter Olympics were also held in 1980- in Lake Placid, New York. The Winter Games began in mid-February, shortly after Carter’s January speech. Athletes from the USSR participated in the Lake Placid Olympics, earning a total of 22 medals, ten of which were gold, compared to a total of twelve from the United States. The rivalry between the two countries was amplified during these Games, and the USSR came out on top in the medal count.

However, one of the most famous moments from the games was the “Miracle on Ice” miracle on icehockey match between the United States and the defending Olympic champions, the Soviet Union. The team from the United States, primarily consisting of amateur players, scored two goals in the final period to upset the Soviet team 4-3. President Carter called the locker room following the game to congratulate the team; reportedly, they even briefly discussed the differing beliefs between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. The Miracle on Ice game is not only a highlight from the Lake Placid Games, but also one of the most iconic sports moments in history. It was especially significant considering the renewal of Cold War tensions and Carter’s boycott proposition, representing the conflict between the two nations and the ultimate victory of the United States.

Carter followed through with the boycott, and he additionally threatened to suspend the passports of any U.S. athletes who chose to attend the Moscow games. In turn, the U.S.S.R. initiated a boycott of the 1984 summer Olympics held in Los Angeles, as did more than a dozen additional countries.

Carter’s stance received mixed reviews. Many saw it as a commitment to overcoming the Soviet Union and the threat they posed to democracy. Much of the media and many prospective Olympians were unhappy that athletes lost the opportunity to compete. Several expressed that the best way to defeat the Soviets was to go to the Olympics and beat them in competition, similar to the victories of athletes like Jesse Owens winning four gold medals in the 1936 Nazi Olympics in Berlin.

The ancient Olympic Games in Greece saw city-states suspend fighting and come together once every four years for the Olympics. The modern Olympic Games, although intended to bring countries together through a multi-national athletic competition, have had seven boycotts and even more instances of controversy. The Olympic Truce was reestablished in the early 90s, which encourages countries to allow safe travel for athletes and spectators and promotes global cooperation. The Truce hasn’t ceased wars or eliminated international tension, but it ended the period of boycotts in four successive Summer Olympics. As the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang demonstrate, external tensions among countries persist during the Olympics, and the U.S. and Russia are still no exception.

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.

Happy Birthday Mr. President: The Ronald Reagan Edition

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:

  1. Reagan earned his nickname “the Gipper” from his time as an actor in Hollywood. In the film Knute Rockne: All American, Reagan played a football player named George Gipp who, upon becoming ill, urges his teammates to “win one for the Gipper.” Somewhat ironically given recent events, the film is about a Norwegian immigrant who reinvents football at Notre Dame, and later returns to the school to coach.

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.

MAGA reagan style4. 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 sdoenthusiastic. 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.

aaronburr

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.

fdrpress
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.

rooseveltandreporters
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.

The President’s Mind: Trump, Reagan, and Mental Health in the Oval Office

By Kaleena Fraga

On Twitter last week, President Trump accused his critics of “taking out the old Ronald Regan playbook and screaming mental instability and intelligence…” Trump later added “Ronald Reagan had the same problem and handled it well. So will I!”

These tweets were in response to reports in the new Michael Wolff book Fire and Fury, which suggest that the president is mentally unfit for his role. Trump’s response attempts to equivocate these suggestions with similar accusations levied against Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. Reagan was later diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, but there is no definitive proof that he suffered from it while in office, or that it inhibited him from performing his duties.

Reagan and Walter Mondale Shaking HandsStill, he did face speculation of diminishing mental capacity during his presidency. In the aftermath of a poor performance in Reagan’s first debate with Democratic challenger Walter Mondale, a New York Times op-ed wrote that there were “legitimate questions that arise when the oldest President in the history of the Republic is seeking re-election to a term that would last from the end of his 73rd year to the end of his 77th…the issue of aging and its effects cannot be avoided.”

Reagan seemed to shake off such doubts in the second debate, when he responded to a probing question about his age by saying:

“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.”

In 2011, Ronald Reagan’s son contested his father’s doctors who, at the time of his presidency, had denied seeing any signs of Alzheimer’s. In his book My Father at 100, Reagan suggests that his father did suffer from Alzheimer’s while in office and that, if properly diagnosed, he would have stepped down.

The 25th amendment is supposed to protect the country in the event that the executive is unable to react to the demands of the office. Although it’s been invoked a handful of times since its ratification in 1967 for events like surgery, it’s never been used to permanently remove a president from power.

Trump too faces accusations of a declining mental state. He, like Reagan, is a president in his 70s.  For now, at least, questions of the president’s health are all conjecture. Trump will undergo a physical on January 12th and, although there will be no psychiatric exam, the results will be released to the public.

Then again, according to a recent study, as many as half of all U.S. presidents have suffered from some mental illness. Most for depression–including John Quincy Adams, James Madison, and Abraham Lincoln–and others with probable bipolar disorders, anxiety disorders, and alcohol dependence.