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.

Theodore Roosevelt & the American Museum of Natural History

By Kaleena Fraga

Any visit to New York City is lacking without a stop at the American Museum of Natural History–an experience that can be described a mix between walking through a zoo and stepping back in time. The museum is deeply linked to Theodore Roosevelt, and his love of nature and conservation.

TR journal1
Roosevelt’s journal as an 11 year old

The roots of the museum are as old as 1867, when a young Roosevelt started the “Roosevelt Museum of Natural History” in his bedroom. A sickly child, often confined indoors, Roosevelt found joy in adventure novels and in animals. When he was given a seal skull by a family friend, it quickly became one of his prized possessions–and the first exhibit at the Roosevelt Museum of Natural History. Reflecting on the skull Roosevelt wrote in his autobiography that, “My father and mother encouraged me warmly in this, as they always did in anything that could give me wholesome pleasure or help develop me.” Even once he’d become a young man, Roosevelt’s passion continued. As a student at Harvard, he studied natural history.

The museum was chartered in 1869, and Roosevelt donated his own prized specimens to the museum’s young collection.

Upon leaving office, Roosevelt could boast of an impressive record of conservation that merits the museum’s fawning memorial of him–he had created 51 bird reservations, 18 national monuments, 5 national parks and 4 game preserves, and had enlarged or created 150 national forests. He also established the United States Forest Service and protected over 200 million acres of land for conservation.

Of course, Roosevelt was also a hunter. When he went on a safari after leaving office, the Smithsonian partially funded his trip knowing that he would shoot and bring animals home to be displayed–many of these are now in the Mammals Hall in the Museum of Natural History. His legacy of conservation and his legacy as a hunter leave us with a compelling, yet complicated, legacy.

In trying to describe his view of nature, Roosevelt once said:

“There are no words that can tell the hidden spirit of the wilderness, that can reveal its mystery, its melancholy, and its charm.”

For city-dwellers of Manhattan, and for visitors from afar, the American Museum of Natural History is the next best thing.

Play Ball! George H.W. Bush, Baseball, and the Queen of England

By Kaleena Fraga

On this day in 1991, the Baltimore Orioles had an unusual fan at Memorial Field. Not only had the President of the United States and the First Lady shown up at the game, the Queen of England also graced the ballpark with her presence.

Queen Elizabeth’s appearance at the game came during her 13-day visit to the United States with her husband, Prince Phillip. The Queen’s parents had been the first reigning monarchs to visit American soil when they came at FDR’s invitation in 1939. The 1991 trip marked Queen Elizabeth’s 9th to the United States–her first being in 1958, and the most recent 15 years prior, in 1976, for the American Bicentennial.

The New York Times noted that at the game, “the Queen will be offered a hot dog, but she Queen Elizabeth II and President George Bush meet baseball pdoes not eat in public.” A waitress later told UPI that the queen did not eat, but she did drink a Beefeater martini.

The players of both teams were told to “be natural” while shaking hands with the four world leaders–Queen Elizabeth, Prince Phillip, George H.W. Bush, and Barbara Bush. Oakland player Jose Canesco reportedly felt so relaxed at the encounter that he chewed gum while meeting the foursome. The baseball commentators in the video above remarked that the players kept on their hats, but that “a lot of bowing and scraping before royalty is not the American way.” The Bushs and the royals then surprised fans by venturing out onto the field to wave hello.

The game was not without disruptions. Even before it started, protestors chanted “IRA, USA.” One group of protestors raised a sign that read: “Irish blood is on the queen’s hands,” and another group lofted a sheet saying, “One world, one struggle, free Ireland.” Once the game was underway, a group of protestors tied a sign that said “Bread Not Bombs” to a flagpole in right field along with several balloons, referencing the violence in Northern Ireland. UPI reported that although Orioles ushers were able to cut the sign and the balloons from the flagpole, it floated up “over center field in full view of the queen and the prince…”

While the game was a somewhat new experience for the royal couple–the queen was reportedly surprised to hear that Prince Phillip had played a little as a boy–President Bush is a well-known baseball fan. He and his father both played at Yale, and Bush was a frequent visitor to Orioles games. Why baseball? According to Bush, “it’s got everything.”

William McKinley & the Red Carnation

By Kaleena Fraga

William McKinley believed in luck. Specifically, he believed in luck derived from red carnations.

The nation’s 25th president had been given a red carnation by a friend and a political opponent as they ran against each other for the seat of Ohio’s 18th congressional district. McKinley’s opponent, L.L. Lamborn, was the first to grow carnations out West.

After he won the contest, McKinley became convinced of the carnation’s good luck. He wore it on his lapel, and, once elected president, he kept bouquets of red carnations on his desk in the Oval Office.

McKinley was known to give out carnations while he greeted supporters. On a hot day in September, he greeted supporters in Buffalo, New York, outside Buffalo’s Pan-American Exposition. His team was nervous about the exercise, and his personal secretary had tried to cancel the reception twice. As McKinley greeted a little girl, she asked if she could have the carnation from his lapel. Although he was not in the habit of unpinning the carnation, McKinley granted her wish. A few handshakes down the line, McKinley found himself face to face with Leon Czolgosz, who shot him in the abdomen.

McKinley died eight days later. His vice president, Theodore Roosevelt, became the youngest executive in history at the age of 42.

All in all, presidents don’t seem to be an overly superstitious group. Aside from FDR’s fear of the number thirteen, and Harry Truman’s belief in the power of horse shoes, there don’t seem to be many examples of presidents relying on charms as McKinley did with his carnations. And, given how his presidency turned out, perhaps that’s for the best.

Happy Birthday Mr. President: The Harry Truman Edition

By Kaleena Fraga

The United States’ 33rd president lived in an age before twitter. Unlike Donald Trump, Harry Truman didn’t have the easy access of the internet to hit back against alleged slights. He did, however, have the old fashioned method of strongly worded letters, which is exactly what he employed after a reviewer panned his daughter Margaret’s singing performance performance.

The reviewer, Paul Hume, wrote for the Washington Postthat Margaret Truman “could not sing very well” and was “flat a good deal of the time.”

In celebration of Truman’s 134th birthday, we’ve printed Truman’s fiery response in full:

“Mr. Hume:

I’ve just read your lousy review of Margaret’s concert. I’ve come to the conclusion that you are an “eight ulcer man on four ulcer pay.”

It seems to me that you are a frustrated old man who wishes he could have been successful. When you write such poppy-cock as was in the back section of the paper you work for it shows conclusively that you’re off the beam and at least four of your ulcers are at work.

Some day I hope to meet you. When that happens you’ll need a new nose, a lot of beefsteak for black eyes, and perhaps a supporter below!

Pegler, a gutter snipe, is a gentleman alongside you. I hope you’ll accept that statement as a worse insult than a reflection on your ancestry.

H.S.T.”

Hume, hardly an old man at 34, kept the letter for a few years and eventually sold it.

While many Americans sympathized with the president as a father defending his daughter, many more were outraged that Truman had decided to focus his anger on Hume and not on the ongoing war in Korea. David McCullough notes in his tome about the president, Truman, that the Chicago Tribune at the time wondered if the letter indicated that Truman’s “mental competence and emotional stability” were cracking under pressure.

The original letter was eventually purchased by the Harlan Crow Library, in Highland Park, Texas. A copy of the letter, however, hung in the office of President Bill Clinton during his two terms in the White House.

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.

America Needs a John Quincy Adams

By Kaleena Fraga

John Quincy Adams, America’s sixth president and the son of the nation’s second, had a reputation as a prickly, aloof man. He was a one-term president and by no means a popular one–yet he came to be seen as a man of iron principle and honesty, even in the face of political pressure from his own party. Politicians of his ilk are largely missing from the political landscape today.

I: Switching Parties

Adams, the son of one of America’s most prominent Federalists, entered the Senate in 1803 as a Federalist himself. Yet he remained distant from his colleagues. In an era of hyper-partisanship in which Federalists accused the Republicans of colluding with France, and the Republicans accused the Federalists of colluding with England (sound familiar?) Adams stubbornly trod his own path. He supported both President Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase and the administration’s hardline on England, which his fellow Federalists opposed. His father, former president John Adams wrote:

“You are supported by no Party. You have too honest a heart, too independent a Mind and too brilliant Talents to be sincerely and confidentially trusted by any Man who is under the Dominion of Party Maxims or Party Feelings.”

His stubborn refusal to fall in line with the Federalists, and his support of Jefferson, cost Adams his seat in the Senate, his place in the party, and many friends back in Boston. To Adams, it was a matter of principle, and a matter of what he thought was right and wrong according to the U.S. Constitution.

This sort of political courage is rare in Washington today. To be fair to today’s politicians, the landscape has changed. There is pressure from lobbyists, constituents on social media, and from within the party itself to toe the party line. Political purity tests are the cause celebre of today, and politicians that stray too far from the party line face possible challenges from the left or right of their own parties. It’s doubtful that Adams–with his iron will and stubborn personality–would be swayed. But it’s also likely that he’d never make it to Congress (or the presidency) in the first place.

II: As President 

John Quincy Adams’s presidency spanned a divisive time in American. After the relative political tranquility of Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe’s presidencies–“the Era of Good Feelings”–, in which the Republicans enjoyed almost unanimous support, Adams entered office as the country’s political unity began to fray. The nature of campaigning had also begun to change–in the day of George Washington, a man had to practically be dragged to the presidency by his fellow citizens. In John Quincy Adams’ day, it was becoming permissible for a man or his friends to campaign actively.

The electoral system in America of the 1820s had begun to evolve as more states joined the union, and although there wasn’t a uniform way of voting, regular people had more of a sway than ever before. Adams’ political rival, Andrew Jackson, supported this democratic uprising. The fact that Adams entered office in 1824 under the auspice of a “corrupt bargain”–Jackson won the most electoral votes, but not a majority, so the election was sent to the House of Representatives where Adams was alleged to have struck a deal with Henry Clay–only increased the divide between the two parties.

John Dickerson’s piece for the Atlantic The Hardest Job in the World postulates that the presidency has become a beast unmanageable for one man, and that the current system of campaigning rewards skills that aren’t necessary applicable or important to the presidency once he/she is in the office. Campaigning rewards skills like charisma and debate; the office requires management and governance. Adams would probably agree with Dickerson–part of his cohort’s campaign against Jackson was that the fiery formal general couldn’t spell and lacked the necessary political experience to be president. Adams likely couldn’t be elected today, and perhaps was the last person to be elected based on political merits, rather than his power of campaigning. James Traub, an Adams biographer, notes of Jackson’s victory over Adams in 1828: “Of course, the whole episode was founded on the archaic assumption that Americans would not elect a man who couldn’t spell or hold his temper.”

III: Post Presidency

Adams served a single term as president–becoming only the second man to be voted out after four years, after his father, John Adams. But Adams refused to be cast into political obscurity. As part of his upbringing in Massachusetts, his parents had always encouraged him to find ways to be useful. “Usefulness” is also a reason James Comey invoked to justify writing his book after he was fired by Donald Trump.

When the opportunity rose for Adams to join the House of Representatives, he took it. Although many of his friends and family feared it would be degrading for an ex-president to join a lower chamber, Adams refuted this logic, saying it wouldn’t be at all degrading to serve “as a selectman of his town, if elected thereto by the people.” He joined the House in 1830 and would serve until his death in 1848–Adams literally collapsed on the House floor and died in the Speaker’s office.

As a member of the House, Adams took on slavery as his cause. Although he never labelled himself an abolitionist–at the time, abolitionists were hated by both the North and South as dangerous rabble rousers–Adams became a thorn in the side of the “slavocracy.” He insisted on introducing petitions to the House which raised questions about slavery–and continued to do so even after the passage of the gag rule, which forbid any such thing on the House floor. A rival Congressman once tried to bait Adams, reading back a line that he’d spoken to a group of black citizens: “The day of your redemption is bound to come. It may come in peace or it may come in blood; but whether in peace or blood let it come.” The Congressman read the line twice. He reminded his colleagues what this meant–emancipation and maybe civil war. Adams replied:

“I say now let it come. Though it cost the blood of millions of white men let it come. Let justice be done though the heavens fall.”

Although the political climate was not at all amenable to this sort of thought–indeed, at the time such a statement was shocking, and Adams received his fair share of death threats–Adams never cowered from a controversial political issue that he thought was right, or wrong. He challenged the slavocracy as a Congressman and as a lawyer, when he defended the men and women of the Amistad and won their freedom. 

In today’s increasingly partisan climate, where politicians are falling over themselves to move further to the left or right in order to move up the ladder, a politician like Adams, who sticks to his principles even under immense political pressure, would be a welcome change.