Cover image for Portraits of the Presidents, the National Portrait Gallery
Title:
Portraits of the Presidents, the National Portrait Gallery
Author:
Voss, Frederick.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Washington, D.C. : National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution ; New York : in association with Rizzoli, [2000]

©2000
Physical Description:
143 pages : illustrations (mostly color), portraits ; 30 cm
General Note:
Catalog of an exhibition held at the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum, College Station, Texas, Oct. 6, 2000-Jan. 15, 2001, and six other museums, Feb. 16, 2001-Jan. 12, 2003.
Language:
English
ISBN:
9780847822980

9780847823277
Format :
Book

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E176.1 .V667 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area-Oversize
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Summary

Summary

Including images of every American president, from George Washington to Bill Clinton, this collection of portraits shows how these images have helped shape their careers and legacies. It also offers a concise history of each president and how the portraits came to be made.


Excerpts

Excerpts

Introduction The presidency is by far the most influential and prestigious political office in the United States, and because of America's ascendancy in the international arena, it is a central focus of world politics as well. As the nation's chief administrator, the holder of this office determines how and when the laws of the United States are to be implemented. Given a power of veto over congressional acts and a prestige that comes with being the only public official elected by all of the people, the President has also come to exercise a substantial and, on occasion, dominant influence on what those laws should be. As the constitutionally designated commander in chief of the country's armed forces, the President is charged with overseeing national security against both internal and external threats, and in time of war that responsibility can vest him with powers that are almost dictatorial in their scope. Finally, as chief diplomat, the President is the primary architect of the policies that determine the country's relationships with the rest of the world.     The powers of the presidency are not unlimited, however, nor is the holder of this office free to pursue courses strictly according to his own desires. On the contrary, the democratic process of which the President is a part places numerous constraints on his power to act, and many a presidential wish has gone unfulfilled in the face of a recalcitrant Congress or a hostile climate of public opinion. Moreover, on many occasions when the President has had his way, the unforeseen negative consequences of his triumph have diminished his credibility and, in turn, his capacity to lead.     The presidency is an enormous job. To carry out its multifaceted responsibilities requires at times more genius, stamina, and foresight than any individual could be expected to possess. It therefore comes as no surprise that over the past two centuries, many of the holders of that office have taken a decidedly negative view of it. Thinking back on his White House years, John Adams once said: "Had I been chosen President again, I am certain I could not have lived another year." For Adams's successor, Thomas Jefferson, the presidency meant "unceasing drudgery and daily loss of friends," and John Quincy Adams claimed that his presidential term represented "the four most miserable years" of his life. Abraham Lincoln compared his feelings about being President to those of the hapless man who had just been tarred and feathered and ridden out of town on a rail. When someone asked the man what he thought of the experience, he replied, "If it wasn't for the honor of the thing, I'd rather walk." And then there was Grover Cleveland, who, at a particularly troublesome moment late in his first term, took the hand of a young White House visitor named Franklin Roosevelt and said: "My little man, I am making a strange wish for you. It is that you may never be President of the United States."     To some extent, these and many other similar statements made about the presidency by those who have known it most intimately are only expressions of momentary frustrations that anyone might feel in a job. Indeed, some Presidents have reveled in the burdens of their office. The most notable was the incurably ebullient Theodore Roosevelt, who once declared, "No one ever enjoyed the presidency as I did." Still, the presidency is an office that has more than the usual potential for causing unhappiness for anyone who attains it. If it were possible to poll the forty-one men who have occupied the presidency since 1789, perhaps most of them would not summarize their White House years in the unequivocally gloomy terms that John Quincy Adams did. By the same token, however, they would undoubtedly fully understand why he felt that way.     Despite its attendant travails, the presidency has never suffered from a scarcity of applicants. Henry Clay once said, "I would rather be right than be President." But that was near the close of his long political career, and one wonders how much he really believed it, given the many years he spent promoting his White House hopes. More to the point, while many an ambitious politician might publicly applaud Clay's high-minded declaration, it would not be surprising if secretly they thought this a bit overrated.     According to the Constitution, there are only three qualifications that a would-be President has to meet before seeking the office: The individual must be a native-born American, must have been a legal resident of the United States for at least fourteen years, and must be over the age of thirty-five. Beyond that, legally speaking at least, there are no other criteria that must be met. That is not to say, however, that there are no other less explicitly stated barriers to achieving the presidency. Until 1960, for example, it was generally thought that a Catholic could never be President, and it is only recently that the American electorate has shown even vague signs that it might one day accept the notion of putting a woman, an African American, or a person of Asian or Hispanic descent into the White House.     But even within the limits set by the Constitution and custom, the origin and background of America's Presidents have varied considerably. In terms of their education, for example, White House occupants have ranged from the largely self-taught Andrew Johnson, who did not master the basics of writing until early adulthood, to the scholarly Woodrow Wilson, who held a doctor of philosophy degree from Johns Hopkins. With regard to social and economic origins, the variety has been equally striking. In contrast to Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, who hailed from America's most socially prestigious elite, and John F. Kennedy, who was the son of a multimillionaire, other Presidents, including Abraham Lincoln and Dwight Eisenhower, began life under circumstances that could only be described as hardscrabble.     Perhaps a more interesting aspect of presidential diversity is the great range of vocational backgrounds from which these residents of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue have come. While Andrew Johnson began life as a humble tailor and Ronald Reagan was for many years a movie actor, the first rung on Herbert Hoover's ladder to the White House was his career as an internationally acclaimed mining engineer. Ulysses S. Grant, in the years immediately following his resignation from the army in 1854, was at one point reduced to pawning his gold watch to carry his family through the Christmas holidays. Another example of pre-presidential failure was Harry S. Truman's ill-starred venture into the men's clothing business, which left him at the age of thirty-eight with a mountain of debt and very poor prospects of ever paying it off.     In contemplating the considerable variety in presidential backgrounds, the question arises: Is there any correlation between a President's past and his performance in the White House? At best, the answer is an ambiguous maybe. In the case of George Washington, for instance, his brilliance as a leader of men through the trying circumstances of the Revolution promised success as his country's first President, and his presidency did indeed live up to that expectation. Similarly, Lyndon B. Johnson's expertise in bringing his presidential will to bear on Congress can clearly be traced to his many years of experience as the Democratic majority leader of the Senate. In view of Warren Harding's lackluster career in Congress, it is no surprise that he turned out to be one of the country's weakest Presidents.     On the other hand, the United States has had many Presidents whose White House behavior and accomplishments were at odds with their past. Herbert Hoover's humanitarian instincts, for example, led to his immensely successful efforts to feed the starving civilian masses of Europe during World War I. But in the face of the Great Depression that set in during his presidency, he could not see his way to mounting a similar drive to alleviate the resulting widespread hardships. Chester Arthur was another man whose White House behavior did not square with his pre-presidential career. He owed his political existence to the spoils system that had thoroughly corrupted the federal civil service of his day, but after taking office he used his presidential prestige to help abolish that system. An even more startling presidential surprise was Franklin Roosevelt, whose reputation as a political trimmer with little taste for reforming adventurism seemed to promise an administration unnoted for innovation. Yet within days of his inauguration, Roosevelt was rushing headlong into a series of experimental reforms that would dramatically redefine the role of the federal government in American life.     One of the most intriguing aspects of the presidency is that there is no way to predict how an aspiring candidate will behave when elected. Of Andrew Jackson's imminent accession to the presidency in 1829, Daniel Webster wrote, "When he comes, he will bring a breeze with him.... Which way it will blow, I cannot tell." That comment could have been made of many Presidents as they prepared to undertake their White House responsibilities.     But if anticipating presidential behavior is an uncertain game at best, it is not necessary to go far to discover why. Nothing in a newly elected incumbent's previous experience can fully prepare him for the uniqueness of the presidency and the magnitude of its demands. As a result, until an individual actually experiences the office, even he cannot chart with accuracy the course he will travel. As Lyndon Johnson was fond of saying, becoming President was like being a father: "You can't know what it's like until you are one." Copyright © 2000 Smithsonian Institution. All rights reserved.