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.

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Know Your Fears

know-your-fears-2

My husband told me he plans to write out a list of what he fears from a Trump presidency.  It makes sense, given how much fear is in the air.  Until each of us gets a bead on the nature of our fears, chances are it won’t matter much what we do.

We are exhausted from a long and tortuous election season.  Our nerves are wracked, our moral compasses are twitching.  Our guts are writhing from a roller-coaster ride that isn’t over but barely beginning.

The presidential contest was close, but it was more than that: it was polarizing, salacious, and unedifying.  It was omnipresent and momentous, hauling us all in together in a stinking net of civic obligation.  Then it ended with an ugly surprise, revealing that the nation’s ‘leading citizens’ don’t deserve their reputation as a leading class.  Today, American minds are still traumatized and reeling.  People are depressed, resentful, angry, disapproving.  Most of us sense further calamity brewing. 

Who likes the feeling of powerlessness that sets in after ‘the people have spoken’?  We, the electorate (yes, we’ll all complicit) have tipped the political order upside-down.

So, instead of bringing relief, the outcome of the election brings a new host of worries.  Americans must continue to be attentive and mitigate the various forms of damage Trump’s presidency may cause.  Fissures have opened up in both political parties; they, too, are divided and dangerously weakened.  The next few years will see ongoing tumult and crisis, making it all the more urgent to clarify goals and conserve energies.

American politics requires stamina and organization.  No one person or organization can fight every battle.  So know your fears; name the nature of the danger as exactly as you can.  Let the list you write define the wisest course to pursue.

Feel free to state what you fear most from a Trump presidency
and what you think people who share your fear should be doing.
If you’re viewing this on a laptop, the comments link is in the left sidebar at top.

When A Party Divides: The Democrats in 1860

Stephen Douglas and James Buchanan as cocks fighting to the death.
This masterly drawing from 1860 captures the terror and ugliness of the break-up of the then-dominant Democratic party.  At the time, the Democrats were by far the nation’s oldest political party.  In fact, since the break-up of the fitfully successful Whig party a few years earlier, the Democrats had faced only a fractured opposition, a situation that the emergence of a new, national, anti-slavery party was about to change.  Shortly before this print was struck, the nascent Republican party had met in a convention at Chicago, where they had chosen an outlier, Abraham Lincoln, as their presidential nominee.

The Democrats had flourished by being laissez-faire on slavery.  They stood for a limited federal government, which, in their view, meant leaving slavery and slave-owners strictly alone.  The entire party had been organized around the goal of keeping the federal government from ‘interfering’ with slavery, a goal which enjoyed broad appeal in both North and South.  As slavery became more controversial, however, it became more difficult to rally around this leading idea.  Democrats had controlled the White House since 1852, but who could they put up to succeed the incumbent president, James Buchanan, an elderly former diplomat, who alone could conciliate the party’s fractious northern and southern wings?

In the presidential election of 1860, Democrats watched their party collapse, as its leading figures fought one another for the nomination and the power to chart the party’s future.  By Election Day, the Democrats had split into three parts, backing three rival candidates, opening the way for Lincoln’s unlikely victory.

Stephen Douglas, the strongest of the Democratic contenders, was so controversial a pick that the Democrats’ first nominating convention in Charleston, adjourned without selecting anybody.  Douglas had kept his lead through 18 ballots but could not muster the support needed for victory.  The party convened a second time in Baltimore, where Douglas was finally nominated. His opponents rebelled.  Fire-eaters who wanted a more vociferously pro-slavery candidate bolted to form the Southern Democratic Party, choosing Vice President John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky as their nominee.  A third faction, alarmed at the prospect of a national schism over slavery, eschewed these choices, banding together to form the Constitutional Union party, with Tennessee’s John Bell as their nominee (and the northerner Edward Everett as his running-mate).

The Democrats’ crisis hinged on a failure of leadership and ideology.  The party’s main idea was exhausted and untenable, while its chief figures, though able and patriotic, stubbornly clung to incompatible strategies.  None had the genius, nor the humility, to reconcile the party’s increasingly discordant aims.  Even as the crisis unfolded, observers knew it signified diminishing prospects for ‘the Democracy.’  The party was going to be smaller and weaker, a reality that the creator of the Currier and Ives ‘cartoon’ captures very effectively.

In the ensuing election, Lincoln would win, though receiving just 39.8 percent of all the votes cast.  The Democratic vote would have swamped him if combined.  Douglas won 1,380,202 votes; Breckinridge, 848,019; and Bell 590,901, for a total of 2,819,122, whereas Lincoln polled just 1,865,908.  He won in the North but nowhere else, leading Southerners to style his an illegitimate presidency.  By Lincoln’s inauguration, the Southern states had begun to secede.  With the bombardment of Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, the American civil war got underway.

Democrats felt justified in breaking with their party, but, in all of American history, no election-year choice proved more costly.  The Democrats feared the end of slavery, but, had they ignored their differences and rallied around Douglas, the transition to freedom might have been far less catastrophic and bloody.  Lincoln would not have been elected, and the Civil War as we know it might not have occurred.

As it was, an estimated 620,000 Americans lost their lives.  The Democratic party was dishonored and eclipsed.  It was not until 1885, with the victory of Grover Cleveland, that a Democrat again occupied the presidency.

Image from this source.

The cartoon, published just after Stephen Douglas’s nomination at Baltimore, portrays the struggle within his party as a life-or-death blood sport.  The triumphant ‘Illinois Bantam’ (Douglas) crows over a prostrate ‘old cock’ symbolizing President Buchanan.  The old bird is dying, his great size signifying the power of a united party.  Douglas, flush with victory, boasts of his ability to beat both Lincoln and Breckinridge, the head of the strongest rival Democratic faction.  But just as the victorious Douglas is much smaller than the tough old bird he defeated, so Breckinridge is much smaller than he.  The ‘Kentucky chicken’ looks openly afraid as his handler puts him in the ring.  On the left is a philosophical figure who might represent the machine politicians of Tammany.

The State of the Union? The President Was Too Hyped to Care

President Obama after the State of the Union (January 2016 screenshot), © Susan Barsy
I was disappointed in President Obama’s final State of the Union address.  Though I am generally appreciative of the president, in this instance he did a real disservice to the nation, wasting a key opportunity to acknowledge the true condition of the land, the economy, and the citizens.

How refreshing it would be to hear a factual State of the Union address, where the essential aspects of our collective existence were candidly enumerated, realistically described.  Though thoroughly out of fashion, an address so styled would reassure Americans that the president sincerely cared about their pain and discontents, that the guy at the top identified with what they were experiencing.  Offering such recognition consistently and in a heartfelt way is only right, given that the prospects of many Americans are shrinking.  Particularly imperiled is the prospect that Americans will enjoy personal autonomy and independence: that they will stay free of debt, realize their potential, and, as they mature and grey, have enough to sustain themselves and their families.

Instead of frankly acknowledging the trade-offs that the government constantly makes for the sake of global supremacy and national pride, the President exhorted citizens to ’embrace change’ and take comfort in the fact that ‘The United States of America is the most powerful nation on Earth, period,’ and that ‘We spend more on our military than the next eight nations combined.’  Reasserting the vision that catapulted him to office in the first place (remember Change You Can Believe In?), President Obama urged Americas to have faith in the beneficent nature of change itself.   Even as he paid lip service to some of the nation’s glaring problems, his tone remained unduly up-beat and celebratory.  In the end, his platitudinous tone made me sad and uneasy.

Contrast his speech with Pope Francis’s somber eloquence when he similarly addressed a joint meeting of Congress last fall.  While the pope, too, paid homage to American dreams, his speech stood out for its moral discernment and honesty—the precision with which he outlined the great problems facing America and the world. His observations were at once compassionate and unflinching.  Perhaps it’s unfair to compare a pope and a president, but, in such a case, the president’s take on the nation comes off as almost callous, as willfully out of sync with the people he leads.

Running to see Taft

photo taken from the train during Taft's 1908 whistle-stop campaign.
It occurred to a photographer traveling with William Taft during the 1908 presidential campaign to take this picture of the people of De Witt, Nebraska, running to catch up with Taft’s slowing train.  Taft, a Republican and then vice-president, was running to succeed Theodore Roosevelt.  It was the hey-day of the whistle-stop campaign, which Roosevelt had taken to new extremes.  In an age when newspaper was the nation’s reigning mass media, seeing a leading politician in person was rare and precious.  In a small town, the visit of a future president generated universal excitement.

The image registers photography’s growing ability to capture the spontaneous action of everyday scenes.  Despite the movement of the crowd (and the train), the camera captures the running townspeople and the setting with remarkable clarity.  A woman in an enormous hat smiles while shielding her eyes from the sun; the flags’ stripes flap crisply over others as they run;  in the distance, a retreating train billows exhaust.  A decade earlier, such a photograph would likely have been an impossible blur.

Technical advances had widened the scope of photography, which in turn began comprehending more of the scene: not just frozen dignitaries but the living, breathing citizens they aspired to lead.

Image: from this source.

The Only Time President Roosevelt Ever Consented to Pose Before a Kodak

The Only Time President Roosevelt Posed for a Kodak (1903; courtesy of the Library of Congress)
President Theodore Roosevelt, holding his top hat in one hand and flanked by two officers and an unidentified man, looks down at the photographer from the back of a railroad car.  The year is 1903.  The spontaneity of this picture registers how mainstream photography and photographic portraiture were changing in the wake of George Eastman’s revolutionary invention of the hand-held Kodak camera.

By then the Kodak camera had been around for fifteen years, but its impact was still widening and generating change. Because the Kodak was not just a new type of camera, but a new type of film, and one that gave the user freedom from having to learn film processing, it made picture-taking easier for everybody.  Amateurs began taking pictures like crazy.  The Kodak process also represented a big leap forward in terms of stop-motion photography, suddenly endowing pictures of living subjects with greater immediacy.

Those qualities shine in this marvelous photograph of President Theodore Roosevelt, taken during one of his myriad railway journeys.  Who was the photographer?  Was it a professional photographer assigned to cover him, or an ordinary American, perhaps even a woman, who successfully beseeched the President to pose just this one time?  Did he even consent?  His aides look amused, but Roosevelt himself looks positively put out.

Image: from this source.

When Nominating a President United a Party

Party leaders calling on Theodore Roosevelt at home following his nomination for president.
This photograph provides a measure of how much our style of choosing presidents has changed.  In 1904, when this picture was taken, there was no doubt whatsoever of the power of political parties to select their presidential nominees.  In the century since, both parties have lost that control.

Admittedly, the star of this picture, Theodore Roosevelt (in the white vest), was immensely popular, and the incumbent.  His rise had been dependent, however, on his skill in gaining support of the major powers in his party–the political bosses who controlled large blocks of delegates, and the senior officeholders whom the bosses supported.  A presidential hopeful had to take into account established figures and personally win them over.  The months leading up to a convention were a period of intense jockeying, as hopefuls and their friends made the rounds, trying to gain traction within the organization.  No way could a candidate hope to become president without the party establishment, because the power to select a nominee really lay, not with voters, but with their delegates.

Ultimately, delegates to the conventions chose the nominee.  They could change their votes during the balloting if they pleased, and such changes were often necessary.  This process forced the people who were most invested in a political party to come to an agreement about competing nominees and decide which of them best served the party’s interests.  In the process of rejecting candidates, the party also closed off undesirable ideological directions it might have taken.  (Both the Democratic and Republican parties curtailed the independence of delegates after the tumult of the 1960s, gutting the conventions of their essential purpose and drama.)

Young Roosevelt understood that his individual destiny was interdependent with that of the GOP.  Early on, he labored to prove his loyalty to the Republican Party, despite his Progressive leanings and reputation for being an impetuous renegade.  He recognized that, whatever his personal talents (which proved to be considerable), he needed the vast organizing structure of the party to propel him upward.  After angling for years to get the party where he wanted it, the party finally acquiesced.

The ritualistic mating game they had played was epitomized in the nominating committee’s formal call on Roosevelt after the convention.  They visited Roosevelt at his home on Long Island, Sagamore Hill, where he personally received them and demurely accepted their invitation to be the party nominee.  The character of the event was not unlike an at-home wedding.

The accommodation that he and his fellow Republicans achieved gave Roosevelt the personal glory he craved, while benefiting the party, which, by organizing itself around Roosevelt, soared to new levels of popularity.  In the general election that pitted him against Democrat Alton B. Parker, Roosevelt won every state in the North and the West, including Missouri, which hadn’t gone Republican since the 1860s.  His margin of victory was 2.5 million popular votes, the largest in American history.

Roosevelt forgot what he knew about interdependence later in life.  Having declared that he would never again run for the presidency, he yielded his place to William B. Taft, who retained the White House for the Republicans in 1908.   In 1912, Roosevelt made a disastrous decision to run against his party, splitting it and effectively giving the presidency to Woodrow Wilson and the Democrats.  It was that party’s first presidential victory since before the Civil War.  Roosevelt’s go-it-alone mentality and determination to defy the stolid power of the parties betokened the ill-conceived and divisive presidential bids so prevalent now.

 Image: from this source.

Theodore Roosevelt Jumping, 1902

Rear view of an action photograph unusual for the time.

As one of history’s most active presidents came on the stage, photography raced to catch up with him.  This rather extraordinary photograph from 1902 shows Teddy Roosevelt, then president, jumping his horse over a split-rail fence.  Such beautifully crisp shots of objects in motion were exceedingly rare at that date. Continue reading

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

They Partied On

Frances Benjamin Johnson, "Inaugural decorations, McKinley Inauguration, Pension Building" (Courtesy Library of Congress)
On the evening of March 4, 1901, men and women in formal dress began drifting in to the Pension Building to attend the inaugural ball for William McKinley, who had been sworn in to his second term as president earlier that day.  The cavernous Great Hall of the Pension Building had been lavishly decorated for the occasion.  Guests were nearly lost in its magnificence: the endless garlands of lights, the immense stretch of polished floor, the massive stone columns stretching up to a ceiling over a hundred feet high.  Overhead a gold-draped canopy glowed, reflecting the elegant incandescence below.

It was the one-hundredth anniversary of the first inaugural ceremonies to take place in Washington City, and the ball’s organizing committee intended to make it the most spectacular of any.  The official souvenir program they got up preserves the essence of what they wanted to achieve.

THE INAUGURAL BALL

With each recurring inauguration of a President of the United States the festivities in which the people of the nation join are carried out on an ever increasing scale of elaborateness and grandeur.  This year, as on several occasions in the past, the inaugural ball will be held . . . in the Pension Office building. . . . The magnificent court of this immense building affords suitable accommodations for the thousands who gather to make notable this great social feature of the induction of a Chief Executive into an office, which is the highest a republic can give.

The inaugural ball is a time-honored and always enjoyable function.  The newly announced President attends with the members of his personal and official family, and leads the opening grand march.  It forms a fitting and spectacular climax to a day of so much importance to the whole people.  It is confidently expected that the ball this year will be the most resplendent, the most inspiring scene of gayety that has yet marked an inauguration.  Over $18,000 has been spent alone in decorations, bunting, electricity, and flowers being the component parts of a scheme, which surpasses in glory of embellishment and detail the dreams of Oriental royalty.

The general color effect will be a most delicate shade of yellow known as old ivory.  The ceiling will be a canopy of gracefully looped bunting, studded with innumerable incandescent lights burning within frosted glass.  There will be no glare of dazzling arc lights, but an artistic mellow glow from the incandescent bulbs.  The balconies which surround the court, the grand columns that reach from the tiled floor to arching roof, will all be decorated lavishly by the most skilled artisans.   . . . This year American Beauty roses, rare orchids, and thousands of yards of twining vines . . .  form the basis of the floral scheme.

The US Marine Band was slated to play a special program of promenades.  A 125-piece orchestra was also on hand to play dance music throughout the night.  Admission to the ball was $5 a ticket, while tickets to the buffet were an additional $1 each.

On arriving, President McKinley and his family, and Vice President Theodore Roosevelt and his family, were first shown to private suites of rooms off the Great Hall before emerging to lead the grand opening march.  President McKinley and his wife Ida were admirable figures, but the night really belonged to the new vice-president Teddy Roosevelt and his wife Ethel, whose youth and glamor threatened to eclipse the president entirely.  Roosevelt’s reputation as heroic leader of the ‘Rough Riders’ who helped liberate Cuba from Spain had endowed him with universal celebrity.  His very presence reminded everyone of the nation’s recent military triumph, further stoking the celebratory mood of the ball that night.

Image by noted photographer Frances Benjamin Johnston.
Courtesy of the Library of Congress
Click here to go to the source.