Truman, Roosevelt, and the Day that Changed History

By Kaleena Fraga

On this day in 1945, Franklin Delano Roosevelt died. President since 1933, Roosevelt was only a few months into his fourth term in office.

He was spending some time in Warm Springs, Georgia, hoping that the the temperate climate and hot springs could restore his health. Roosevelt had another reason to visit Warm Springs–he’d planned a rendezvous with his long time mistress, Lucy (Mercer) Rutherford. Rutherford had arranged for her friend, Elizabeth Schoumatoff, to paint a portrait of the president.

unfinished portraitSchoumatoff was standing at her easel painting the president when something in his demeanor changed. She later recalled: “He looked at me, his forehead furrowed in pain, and tried to smile. He put his left hand up to the back of his head and said, ‘I have a terrible pain in the back of my head.’ And then he collapsed.”

Franklin D. Roosevelt died a few hours later. He was 63.

In Washington D.C., Vice President Harry Truman arrived at the White House, where he was greeted by the president’s widow, Eleanor Roosevelt. She told him that the president had died. Truman, stunned, was silent. Then he asked if there was anything he could do for her.

“Is there anything we can do for you?” Eleanor replied. “For you are the one in trouble now.”

For many people, Roosevelt had been the only president they had ever known. He died as WWII had begun to come to an end. In David McCullough’s Truman, McCullough writes that the similarities of Lincoln and FDR’s death were not unappreciated–both had died in April, both died as the wars they’d fought ended, and both would be remembered as great men. “But implicit,” McCullough writes, “was also the thought that Lincoln, too, had been succeeded by a lackluster, so-called ‘common man,’ the ill-fated Andrew Johnson.”

Truman, for his part, told a crowd of reporters:

“Boys, if you ever pray, pray for me now. I don’t know whether you fellows ever had a load of hay fall on you, but when they told me yesterday what had happened, I felt like the moon, the stars, and all the planets had fallen on me.”

Truman’s premature ascension to the presidency prompts one of the what-ifs of presidential history. It was Truman, not Roosevelt, that guided the country through the last stages of WWII, including the dropping of atomic bombs on Japan. Today’s historians have to wonder what FDR might have done in his stead.

Still, Truman finished the three years of Roosevelt’s term and (narrowly) won reelection Harry Trumanin his own right. Although his approval rating hovered in the thirties at the end of his term, history later came to regard Truman as one of the nation’s best presidents. Per McCullough, his legacy includes “the creation of the United Nations, the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, the Berlin Airlift, the recognition of Israel, NATO; for committing American forces in Korea and for upholding the principle of civilian control over the military.”

Truman certainly had big shoes to fill. When FDR died 73 years ago today, the New York Times eulogized him by writing:

“Men will thank God on their knees a hundred years from now, that Franklin D. Roosevelt was in the White House…it was his leadership which inspired free men in every part of the world to fight with greater hope and courage. Gone, now, is this talent and skill…Gone is the fresh and spontaneous interest which this man took, as naturally as he breathed air, in the troubles and hardships and the disappointments and the hopes of little men and humble people.”

 

Theodore Roosevelt and Valentine’s Day 1884

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.

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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.

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.

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.

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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.

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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.