President, Public, and Press: A Romance Gone

Harry Dart’s charming cartoon from 1911 conjures up a vision of the US president, public, and press bound together in a happy if inescapable relationship.  William Howard Taft was then president, and the nation’s falling into a star-struck frenzy as he fled Washington to spend a few weeks at a “summer White House” in New England supplied the theme for Dart’s cartoon.  Between 1909 and 1912, the 300-pound Taft and his wife Helen summered in the Massachusetts town of Beverly, generating headlines and intense local curiosity.  In making a resort community “the nation’s summer capital,” Taft was following long-established custom.  Presidents at least as far back as Buchanan and Van Buren had traded stifling conditions on the Potomac for the salubrious pleasures of a few weeks by the sea, in the hills, or at a fashionable watering hole.

No matter how “ordinary” the Tafts sought to be, their presence turned the starchy enclave of Beverly all circus-y.  Journalists and others clogged its byways to glimpse the President passing in his car or the First Lady patronizing the local shops.  According to the Boston Globe, “motorists in goggles and dusters formed a half-mile line outside the president’s cottage awaiting his emergence for a Sunday drive.”  Gawkers paddled skiffs out into the harbor to inspect the grand presidential yacht, The Mayflower, a 273-foot vessel with a staff of 166 under eight officers.  Mrs Taft claimed that only by boarding the yacht and sailing up the coast could the president get a short interval of rest, “steaming away out of the reach of crowds.”

In fact, the pressure of the Tafts’ celebrity affronted Beverly’s carefully cultivated aura of exclusivity.  “Secret service men patrolled the grounds” around the president’s temporary residence, “trampling the flower beds and generally spoiling the serene summer atmosphere.”  Souvenir hunters snatched the prayer books the president had used while worshiping at the local Unitarian church.  All the while, Taft kept up with his official duties, visiting the executive offices set up for him at Pickering House when not indulging in his well-known passion for golf.

Yet the hoopla surrounding the president’s appearance spoke to the prestige of the presidency itself.  The comical aspects of the public’s love affair with the president are gently satirized in Dart’s cartoon, which imagines George Washington, the first president, similarly circumstanced at “the first Summer Capital” of Mount Vernon.  Messengers dart across the grounds, delivering urgent messages to an executive office set up in one of the plantation’s outbuildings, while on a veranda, man-servants tote trays of cold martinis.  Temporary quarters have been set up for the Departments of Justice, Treasury, and War on Mount Vernon’s front lawn, where Washington, dangling a tennis racket, ponders an urgent communique that has interrupted his game.

Radical dames crusading for the right to vote crowd around outside, bearing signs reading “Our Rights Are Paramount; Let Congress Wait” and “If We Don’t Get Our Rights This Year, We Will The Next” (which is funny because women’s perennial effort to gain the franchise had been going on for more than seventy years and would not culminate in success until 1920).  The president’s security detail is badly outnumbered, allowing groups such as the Daughters of the Revolution and suppliants for pensions to breach the sanctity of the presidential compound.  The presidents’ friends lounge at a table in the shade, trading political intelligence and waiting to get away with G. W. for a round of golf.

Dart’s cartoon evokes nostalgia, because no American would think of drawing or publishing such a cartoon today.  Over the past decades, changes in the press, the public, and the presidency have made the gentle affection that infuses this cartoon a rarity.  The press, the public, and the president are no longer united in a virtuous dynamic of mutual dependence and trust.  Above all, President Trump’s meanness and talent for alienating others makes such a happy scene unthinkable.

 

Image: Harry Grant Dart, “Mount Vernon, The First Summer Capital,”
Puck, vol. 70, no. 1798, 16 August 1911,
from this source.

He Chose Neither the Nation Nor the Time

Boy in sailor uniform with flag-draped portrait of President McKinley (Courtesy of the Library of Congress).
He was born into the United States and, being but a boy, had little choice when his mother chose to dress him in a sailor uniform, cart him off to a photographer’s, and have him pose with a sword before a large flag-draped portrait of William McKinley (who must have been his mother’s political hero). Continue reading

Mending the Flag

Fort McHenry flag (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)
EVERY FOURTH OF JULY, my head is filled with an unruly melange of memories: bits and pieces of our history, recalling the brilliant beings who charted a treacherous course away from kingly rule toward liberty, and the many subsequent Independence Day celebrations when orations, rather than fireworks and explosions, were the order of the day. Continue reading

Obamacratic Gossip

Michelle Obama during Monday's Inaugural Ceremony (Image taken from PBS Newshour coverage)

I heard it first from the security guard in my office building.  We were chatting about the inauguration, when he grew animated.  “What’s going to happen after this?” he abruptly asked me.  “The Democrats don’t have anyone to come after Obama.  They only have one person.  You know who it is?”  It astonished me to realize he meant the First Lady.

“If that happens, I’ll tell everyone I heard it here first,” I replied, taking his words as a measure of the fervid loyalty the First Family enjoys in some camps.  Whether Mrs. Obama, who has never held public office and was a reluctant first lady, would ever contemplate a presidential run seems doubtful to me.  She’s an entirely different sort than Hillary Clinton, who, since her school days, has been a political animal through and through.

Imagine my astonishment, then, when I ran across this image on a heavily visited website (The Obamacrat) that assumed the same thing: that a Michelle Obama candidacy would be viable in 2016.  If nothing else, this incipient “draft MO” movement suggests how ready citizens of perhaps any nation are to place their trust in established political families, fueling a dynastic element that has been an unmistakeable and constant feature of American politics, as evident during the Federalist era as it is today.

Photograph of Mrs Obama
made from PBS Newshour coverage of Monday’s presidential inauguration.

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Political Affections

Robert Cruikshank watercolor of crowds attending Andrew Jackson's inaugural reception in 1829 (Courtesy of the Library of Congress).

Amid the strife wracking US politics, a soul can grow weary.  Why do we care?  Why do we bother—why not lay down the burden of republican citizenship and turn away?

In our hearts, most of us have a vision of a more just, peaceful, and prosperous nation.  With concerted effort and good will, we can attain a condition better than what we’ve experienced lately.  I suppose I became a historian and took the unlikely step of writing about politics because I want to make citizenship a large, evident part of my identity.  Whatever else I do, being a citizen is something that I want to achieve.

Patriotism is out of fashion with the sophisticated.  We think about “going into politics” as a sort of careerism; and, if we don’t do that, it’s pretty much understood that we are on the sidelines.  It would be difficult for us to make sense of the 19th-century statesman who, on his death, was eulogized as a “pure patriot. . . whose brain and heart and means and energies were all at the service of his country.” We can understand the part about the brain and the heart—but to commit all one’s means and energies to the country?  That’s alien.

Yet the many-sided commitment of self to public life was once a commonly held American ideal, which individuals pursued in the hope of gaining a special kind of honor and esteem.  Conversely, the wholehearted identification of one’s personal destiny with that of the nation was a crucial element on which the future of the republic was thought to depend.

Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee last week stirred up many warm feelings, underscoring the important role of human affection in maintaining a government and a country.  Having a queen may seem useless from a functional standpoint, but symbolically Elizabeth represents the nation in her person.  To love Elizabeth is to love Britain, which isn’t too hard, especially when she is looking so darned benign and motherly.

Photograph of Queen Elizabeth II wearing a hat adorned with flowers

Yet the sentiment the Queen evokes isn’t particularly cozy.  Often she evokes awe, especially when projecting loftiness, magnificence, or a tireless duty.  All the qualities associated with the Queen serve to bridge a gulf that might otherwise exist between her subjects and that abstraction that is their nation.  It’s precisely because Elizabeth is a person—rather than a building, say, or a flag—that she can embody so many varying qualities that, taken all together, help maintain something distinctive in Brits’ feeling for their country.

In the words of the 19th-century Englishman Walter Bagehot, the queen “excites and preserves the reverence of the population,” thereby helping to bind their sentiments to the state.

Besides her gobs of jewels, her surreally one-of-a-kind existence, and her heavily photographed family, what I like most about the queen is the way she styled herself as a sort of sacrificial über-citizen, beginning on the very first day of her reign.  On the evening of her Coronation in 1952, the young queen made this declaration to the people of her country.

I have in sincerity pledged myself to your service, as so many of you are pledged to mine. Throughout all my life and with all my heart I shall strive to be worthy of your trust.

Thus began sixty fairly unsensational years of color-coordinated dressing and the performance of millions upon millions of prescribed and customary royal duties.  At the end of the day, it’s hard not to admire Elizabeth’s dogged commitment to all the formalities and tedious conventionalities that are part and parcel of her country’s monarchical tradition.

When it came time to draw up our own Constitution in the 1780s, the Revolutionary generation was conscious that, in rejecting monarchical government, they had given up something that, in good times, helped secure citizens’ attachment and loyalty.  What, in a republic, could substitute for monarchy’s appealing glitter, pomp, and ceremony?  What could the framers devise to cultivate the people’s respect and embody the fledgling nation’s character and authority?

Ironically, the answer they came up with is the presidency.  The framers hoped that the occupant of this new-fangled office would function as “the people’s sovereign.”  Federalists like John Adams hoped that the style presidents adopted would be sufficiently “splendid and majestic” to instill a sense of the dignity and authority of the nation in the public mind.  In addition, members of the federal government took care to develop a set of forms and customs for capital life that might earn the republic respect, both at home and abroad.

Still, it would be hard to claim that the Founders solved the problem satisfactorily.  In the years before the Civil War, observers recognized that the federal government exercised only a weak, secondary claim on many Americans’ loyalties—secondary to their homes and to the states where they were raised.

As we contemplate the narcissism and partisanship permeating the competition for the presidency, we may be justified in doubting whether the work of securing the affection and loyalty of the people remains a priority today.

Image: Robert Cruikshank’s watercolor,
“President’s Levee, or all Creation going to the White House”
(published 1841), from this source.

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