Eisenhower & the 50th State

By Kaleena Fraga

On this day in 1959, Dwight D. Eisenhower issued Proclamation 3309, creating the state of Hawaii. The admission of Hawaii brought the total of U.S. states up to fifty, and it is the most recent addition to the Union.

Upon signing his proclamation, the president said:

All forty-nine States will join in welcoming the new one–Hawaii–to this Union. We will wish for her prosperity, security, happiness, and a growing closer relationship with all of the other States. We know that she is ready to do her part to make this Union a stronger Nation–a stronger people than it was before because of her presence as a full sister to the other forty-nine States. So all of us say to her, “Good Luck.” And to each of her representatives, a very fine tour of service in the public domain. We know that they will find their work interesting and fruitful for all of us.

Ike had long been a proponent of admitting both Hawaii and Alaska to the Union, and his presidency saw the absorption of both territories.

The road to statehood was a bumpy one–Hawaii’s royal family first proposed joining the Union in 1919. Congress voted down the idea multiple times before 1959, although Eisenhower made it a proponent of his 1952 campaign. Democrats feared that Hawaii would become a Republican stronghold, and pushed for the inclusion of Alaska to balance things out. Some Americans found its distance from the continental U.S. problematic; others opposed Hawaii’s inclusion on racial grounds.

Some native Hawaiians did not want to join the Union, either, and today there is a Hawaiian sovereignty movement.

ike and flagStill, for most Americans today there has never been a United States without Hawaii. The flag that changed under Eisenhower to include 50 stars is the one that most Americans grew up seeing flying over buildings, hanging off porches, or being held on the 4th of July.

Barack Obama, the only American president born in Hawaii, attributes his famous calm demeanor to his childhood in the 50th state. “I always tell folks part of it’s being born in Hawaii,” Obama said, “and knowing what it’s like to jump into the ocean and understanding what it means when you see a sea turtle in the face of a wave.”

Happy Statehood, Hawaii!

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.