NPF: PRESIDENTIAL MEDIA

Posted in No Politics Friday on December 11th, 2009 by Ed

It has been ages since I've done Obscure Presidential Trivia Friday, although half a year is barely enough time to get over the mind-blowing realization that the 10th President, John Tyler, has two living grandsons. Let's talk about preserving presidents for posterity. Not by freezing their severed heads a la Ted Williams or Lenin-style embalming – through media.

Our first six Presidents are remembered only as oil paintings. Thus we are unable to imagine Washington or Madison doing anything but standing bolt-upright in starched pantaloons, one hand gripping a lapel and the other outstretched in the classic "See this? This means some fuckin' oratory is about to happen" pose. Given the tendency of people who painted the wealthy and powerful to…exercise a good deal of tact, our Founders were probably considerably uglier than we realize. History has a way of making people hotter. Compare this 1923 Silver Certificate featuring Lincoln to a modern $5 featuring Stud Lincoln.

So portrait artists were probably hiding Monroe's wrinkles, Washington's scars, and Jefferson's raging herpes sores. The first President (chronologically) to be photographed was the 6th, John Quincy Adams, who sat for this daguerreotype in 1843. He was photographed once more in 1847. Ornery looking SOB, wasn't he? The first President to be photographed while in office was John Tyler, whose place in trivia is considerably more prominent than in history.

Fast forward a few decades to the next great leaps forward in media technology. Grover Cleveland is the first President chronologically to appear on motion picture film, although ironically he did not do so on two non-consecutive occasions. Cleveland appears in the following film of the inauguration of William McKinley, the first sitting President one can view on YouTube:

The film was silent, of course, and legend has it that Edison himself operated the camera for it. One of Edison's inventions, wax cylinder recording, captured the voices of Presidents as early as Benjamin Harrison in 1892. Michigan State's Vincent Voice Library has thousands of rare, old sound recordings like this, although many of the more notable historical figures have migrated to YouTube. I love their collection; it teaches us, among other things, that William McKinley spoke with a comically affected upper-class accent and Calvin Coolidge sounded like a duck (as evidenced by the first Presidental film with sound). Coolidge was also the first President to give a speech broadcast on radio.

Herbert Hoover was on TV. No, seriously, and look at the size of that noggin!

HH lived to be more than 90, and thus he appeared on live TV at the 1960 GOP Convention. Truman was the first to appear on TV while in office, although by 1950 the public had gotten used to seeing newsreel footage of FDR and TV wasn't much of a leap forward.

The question of the first internet President is disputed, not that anyone's losing sleep over it. Presidents began sending coded electronic messages in the 1960s over the military precursors to the civilian internet. Reagan supposedly sent the first message that was readable on a monitor as opposed to printing out like a fax machine, but undoubtedly the first President to use the internet as we understand it was Bill Clinton in 1993. He sent the first Presidential email and undoubtedly cranked up top secret internet technology available only to the highest levels of government in 1993 – the 56k dial-up modem, I believe – and downloaded pictures of obese hillbilly women.

I'm not sure where Presidents can go from here and still break new ground, since I believe the next step up from existing technology involves teleportation. But when it happens, I'll be sure to make a note of it. And in case you were wondering, Cleveland installed the first telephone in the White House in 1892 and insisted – people, when Grover Cleveland insist on doing something you let him do it – on answering it himself. Which always amused the hell out of me, especially given that there were about 9 telephones in the United States at the time. "Hello, J.P.? This is Grover. Let's crank call Andrew Carnegie."**

** May not be an actual quote

Tags: