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

13 thoughts on “NPF: PRESIDENTIAL MEDIA”

  • You mentioned Edison's wax cylinder recorder. The wax recorder he recorded "Mary Has A Little Lamb" on is in Edison' Menlo Park, NJ laboratory, which Henry Ford bought and moved to Greenfield Village in Dearborn, MI. a href="">Greenfield Village features 83 authentic, historic structures, from Noah Webster’s home, where he wrote the first American dictionary, to Thomas Edison’s Menlo Park laboratory, the Wright Bros. Bicycle Shop, to the courthouse where Abraham Lincoln practiced law, which also has the chair Lincoln was shot in at the Ford Theater in Washington, DC. … and many more.

    a href="">The Henry Ford Museum (located at the same site) has at least one of everything from locomotives and rare musical instruments to John F. Kennedy's limousine. Henry Ford's private Smithsonian if you will.

    It's really a 2 day trip – one for Greenfield Village, and another for the Henry Ford Museum. Both really worth seeing.

  • Excellent post, thank you! I actually think the next intermediary step, before teleportation will likely be some form of the interactive holograph, much like the ones that the main stream media are embracing, for no apparent reason. I also wonder who will have the first official vPresidential Avatar, or has that already happened without me knowing it?

  • Oil paintings, yes, but sometimes they were of the "warts and all" school of portraiture. To wit, my favorite of John Adams in his later years:

    Now *that* is the 'next to the definition' image of "ornery."

    Proposed Caption: "Look, kid, the clock's running–I'm 47 billion years old and I don't want this to be the last thing I do–just paint the fucking picture."

  • I prefer to take a kinder view of these old representations; they may be images, but we can also look at them as mirrors — they tell things about us, too. The Twenties saw Lincoln as more ragged, gaunt, and grim; why do we choose to sex him up? Mired in post-bellum abundance and spoiled by the sexual revolution, we now expect our entire past to look self-satisfied, 'confident,' and sexually successful. We find the thought that life has a tragic side distasteful, and would rather suppress it — even if that requires repicturing the harsher past. To me, a former refugee from behind the Curtain, this looks like the benevolent side of a coin I'm familiar with: Soviet revisionists removing from historical imagery figures they had grown to dislike.

    To us, Adams looks ornery. But what did he look like to his contemporaries? We want our leaders to look happy — and we take as ultimate proof the soulless smile ever-present in official pictures of the present. But whom are we kidding? Even the less intelligent among us know that those smiles aren't real, for they can't possibly be so. But why do we expect them in the first place? Could it be because we've been over-exposed to the fake grim of that professional clown Ronnie (not McDonald), and then been forced to bathe in the shine of Slick Willie's oleaginous smile? Life in Adams' times was anything but a ball, and maybe the man was overwhelmed by how hard it was to steer the ship of the state. How could he look anything but 'ornery'? Maybe to his fellow Americans, it would have looked irresponsible to even attempt a smile. Yet we expect it, require it — from people we have no reason to trust when they grin, and who should have nothing to smile about. So who's the odd one here: we mindless demanders of fake, artificial mirth, or our disillusioned ancestors?

  • Great post. And I especially like that it includes a variation on one of my favorite Simpson lines. After Bush I moves in the neighborhood and spanks Bart:

    Homer: He _spanked_ you? _You_? Bart Simpson?
    Bart: I begged him to stop, but he said it was for the good of the
    Abe: Big deal! When I was a pup, we got spanked by Presidents till
    the cows came home. Grover Cleveland spanked me on two
    nonconsecutive occasions.

  • Ed, thanks for existing! I recently discovered your blog, and I've been reading it regularly ever since. It's good.

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