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.

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.

Will, We Hardly Knew Ye: the Legacy of William Henry Harrison

By Kaleena Fraga

William Henry Harrison holds the dubious honor of serving the shortest term in office; and being the first American president to die in office. In honor of the anniversary of his untimely death (April 4th, 1841), let’s review what WHH accomplished while still alive.

His presidency: William Henry Harrison was inaugurated on March 4th, 1841 and died exactly a month later. At the time he was the oldest person ever inaugurated–today he’s beat by Donald Trump, 70, and Ronald Reagan, 69. His death launched a mini constitutional crisis–no one was sure what to do if the president died in office. Harrison’s VP, John Tyler, insisted that it meant that he became president–not “acting president” as some argued at the time. The nation wouldn’t definitively solve the issue of succession until 1967 and the passing of the 25th amendment.

His nickname: Harrison went by the moniker Tippacanoe, a nod to the Battle of Tippacanoe against Native American forces in 1811 during the lead-up to the War of 1812. Although Harrison would later use this battle to his political advantage, James Madison’s Secretary of War originally interpreted the battle as a defeat for the Americans. The skirmish left 62 Americans dead and 126 wounded; thirty six Native Americans were likewise killed.

His legacy: Although Harrison died in office after one month, his grandson Benjamin Harrison was also elected to the presidency, and completed one full term in office. William Henry & Benjamin Harrison are the only grandfather-grandson to serve as president.

His campaign: In what would become known as the Log Cabin campaign, the 1840 battle for the White House pitted the Whig Harrison against Democrat Martin Van Buren, who was running for a second term in office. Democrats, mocking Harrison’s age, wrote in a party newspaper:

“Give him a barrel of hard (alcoholic) cider and settle a pension of two thousand a year on him, and take my word for it, he will sit the remainder of his days in his log cabin.”

Whigs leapt on this, portraying Harrison as a man of the people–someone who, you know, you could grab a beer with. Van Buren, they claimed, was an elitist, out of touch with the common man. Ironically–and in a sign of campaigns to come–Harrison was the aristocrat, having been born to a wealthy family on a plantation. Van Buren’s father was a tavern keeper.

This was not a contest of the Founding Fathers’ day, when it was sacrilegious to campaign. Among other antics, a group of Whigs pushed a ten foot ball made of tin and paper slogans of Harrison’s for hundreds of miles (from this comes the phrase “get the ball rolling”). Other Whig supporters passed out whiskey in log cabin shaped bottles which came from the E.C. Booz distillery (from this comes the word “booze.” See, there are reasons to remember William Henry Harrison!).

It was, as John Dickerson points out in his podcast, Whistlestop, in many ways the first modern campaign.

His speech: At one hour and forty-five minutes, William Henry Harrison’s inaugural address is the longest in history. It’s 3,000 words longer than the runner up’s speech (William Howard Taft, 1909). Given on a cold Washington day, it’s also in all likelihood what killed him.

And so we’ll keep it short. Happy death-day, President Harrison.

First Lady Feature: Barbara Bush

By Kaleena Fraga

On a late spring day in 1990, Barbara Bush stepped up to the podium at Wellesley College to deliver the school’s commencement address. Her invitation had prompted furor across the student body. To many students at Wellesley, Barbara Bush was no role model. One hundred and fifty students signed a petition which read:

‘Wellesley teaches that we will be rewarded on the basis of our own merit, not on that of a spouse. To honor Barbara Bush as a commencement speaker is to honor a woman who has gained recognition through the achievements of her husband, which contravenes what we have been taught over the last four years at Wellesley.”

Her defenders said the outrage was generational. When asked about the controversy herself, the First Lady said that she understood the students’ perspective. “They’re 21 years old and they’re looking at life from that perspective,” Mrs. Bush said. “I don’t disagree with what they’re looking at. But I don’t think they understand where I’m coming from. I chose to live the life I’ve lived, and I think it’s been a fabulously exciting, interesting, involved life. In my day, they probably would have been considered different. In their day, I’m considered different. Vive la difference.”

Her husband didn’t mince words. In his diary, George H.W. Bush wrote that the “elitist kids” of Wellesley dismissed her accomplishments as a wife, a mother, a volunteer, and a “great leader for literacy.”

Barbara Bush was made of presidential stuff long before she met her husband–she’s a descendent of Franklin Pierce, the 14th president. She and Abigail Adams are also the only women in history to be both a wife and a mother to a president.

bush and hwBarbara Bush met her husband at sixteen and married him four years later, after his brush with death during WWII. Before marriage Mrs. Bush had enrolled in Smith College–she was a voracious reader as a girl–and helped out in the war effort by working at a nuts and bolts factory in the summer of 1943. As the wife of George H.W. Bush–who, over the course of their marriage, was the Ambassador to the United Nations, the Director of the C.I.A., and the Vice President of the United States–Mrs. Bush had the opportunity to see the world. She oversaw moving her family twenty-nine times.

Within a few weeks of her husband’s inauguration to the presidency in 1989, Barbara Bush made literacy her cause as First Lady. At the launch of the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy, Mrs. Bush stated that, “In 10 years of traveling around the United States of America, visiting literary programs, libraries, kindergarten groups, day-care centers, single-parent classes for high school dropouts, public housing projects, food banks – you name it, I’ve visited it – it has become very apparent to me that we must attack the problem of a more literate America through the family. We all know that adults with reading problems tend to raise children with reading problems.” The foundation today is active in all 50 states. It seeks to support parents who are improving their reading level, with the goal that the parents will read to their children.

Although during her husband’s presidency Barbara Bush rarely drew attention on her bbush conventionown political views, she was more outspoken before and after H.W.’s term in office. During his vice presidential run she expressed support for the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment and embrace pro-choice views on abortion. During the 1992 presidential campaign, Mrs. Bush stated that the abortion debate had no place in the party platform at all. Abortion, she said, “was a personal thing.”

Barbara Bush would also redefine the role of first spouses when she became the first First Lady to deliver prepared remarks at the 1992 Republican Convention. During the (increasingly bitter) campaign, Mrs. Bush also defended Hillary Clinton, who was under fire for her own outspoken political views.

As for that speech in 1990, Barbara Bush (whose husband voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016) left the Wellesley class of ’90 with this:

“Who knows? Somewhere out in this audience may even be someone who will one day  follow in my footsteps and preside over the White House as the president’s spouse–and I wish him well.”

Washington and the Myth of Wooden Teeth

By Kaleena Fraga

Today is George Washington’s 286th birthday. Name a fact–any fact about him. First president? Revolutionary War general? Something about a cherry tree? Wooden teeth?

Of the many myths surrounding Washington, the one about his teeth is among the most popular. In reality, Washington never had wooden teeth. But he did have dental problems, lots of them, requiring the use of dentures for a good chunk of his adult life. Rather than wooden teeth, however, as Ron Chernow writes in his Washington biography, Washington: A Life, most of the teeth in his dentures were likely made from walrus or elephant ivory. Chernow postulates that the myth arose from the “gradual staining of hairline fractures in the ivory that made it resemble a wood grain.” Washington also used several of his own pulled teeth in his dentures, and there’s documentation of his purchase of teeth from slaves (a grotesque, but common practice in the 18th century).

1789_GeorgeWashington_byChristianGullagerWashington found his dental problems highly embarrassing. They made his lips stick out, and made it hard for him to speak. The fake teeth often became discolored, once so much that Washington sent them to his dentist, John Greenwood for repair. Greenwood noted that they had turned black–possibly because the president drank so much port wine. That Washington felt so self-conscious about his teeth may explain his solemn look in most of his portraits.

Washington’s dental ordeals sound terrible–both painful and embarrassing, especially for someone who, as president and as a beloved public figure, was expected to entertain guests and speak publicly. His wife, Martha, also suffered from dental problems and both of them eventually wore dentures. Martha encouraged her grandchildren to invest in toothbrushes and cleansing powders to avoid the turmoil that she and her husband endured over their teeth.

By the time he became president, Washington had only one natural tooth remaining. When this tooth had to be pulled, Washington gifted it to his dentist, Greenwood. Greenwood originally drilled a hole through the tooth and tied it to his watch chain. He became worried it would break, and transferred it to a locket. On the locket is inscribed: “In New York 1790, Jn Greenwood made Pres Geo Washington a whole sett of teeth. The enclosed tooth is the last one which grew in his head.”

For those curious to see Washington’s smile in person, Mount Vernon has his dentures–the only full set in existence.

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.

rooseveltdiary.jpg

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.