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.

American Military Parades, A History

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).

1991.jpgSimilarly, 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 IKE_paradeall 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 kennedyparadeparade, 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.

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

“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.

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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.

Martin Van Buren and the Myth of OK

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.

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The inauguration of William Henry Harrison, 1840

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.

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.

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.

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

By Kaleena Fraga

(To check out this piece in podcast form, click here)

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.

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Truman 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.”

eisenhower-truman1

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. 

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”