Friday, September 4, 2009

Obama (and other presidents) in the classroom

The Obama administration announced this week that the president will deliver an special address to school children on September 8, 2009. The White House is asking schools to tune at 12:00 for the address, which will focus on staying in school - more from

Here is an advance for the speech

A few Republicans are calling for students to skip or boycott the speech, with some even going so far as calling for schools to block the speech.

This begs the question, what's the history of presidents' speaking in schools?

Every president in the modern age has used schools as the backdrop for live and taped messages, although few have attempted to pull off a nationwide live address to be played in schools (more below). This week, Democrats have made much over a November 14, 1988 speech President Ronald Reagan made for invited students in the White House. The Reagan administration taped the speech and sent it to schools across the U.S. The speech was also broadcast on C-Span for schools to show at some later date. The major Democratic party talking point on this speech is summed up as follows from the a story at Media Matters. "According to press secretary Marlin Fitzwater, the speech was broadcast live and rebroadcast by C-Span, and Instructional Television Network fed the program 'to schools nationwide on three different days.'"

Of course, we all remember that George W. Bush was in an elementary classroom when planes struck the World Trade Center on 9/11/2001.

Here, President Franklin Roosevelt meets with children in Pine Mountain, Georgia.

President George Bush addressed school children in 1991 at Alice Deal Junior High. The Bush administration hoped the talk would be carried in schools across the country and in fact Bush opens the speech saying "Thank you, Ms. Mostoller, and thanks for allowing me to visit your classroom to talk to you and all these students, and millions more in classrooms all across the country." Democrats criticized Bush at the time for using taxpayer dollars to deliver a political speech to a captive audience.

At a much different time using a much different medium, President Abraham Lincoln responded to a 1864 petition from 195 children in Massachusetts sent by Mary Mann (wife of Horace Mann) asking the president to free all slaves. Lincoln most certainly knew the his reply would be made public. I suppose this communique was a 19th century version of the modern-day schoolhouse presidential talk.

The Lincoln slave petition letter

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Presidents vacationing

As President Obama vacations at Martha's Vineyard, a bit of perspective on presidential vacations is in order. Barack Obama is not the first president to spend time on Martha's Vineyard. Bill Clinton vacationed there numerous times. The Clintons and the Obamas rent their vacations homes. Other presidents has retreated to homes they or their families owned to vacation. George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan to their ranches in Crawford, Texas and Rancho del Cielo, in Santa Barbara, California respectively. George H. W. Bush spent time at the family home in Kennebunkport, Maine. Of course, John F. Kennedy spent considerable time at his family home in Hyannis, Massachusetts.

Jimmy Carter split most of the limited time that he vacationed between his home in Plains Georgia and on the Georgia coast on St. Simmons Island at Musgrove Plantation and on Sapelo Island. Carter's vacation spots coincidentally intersected with other presidential getaways. George and Barbara Bush honeymooned on Sea Island in 1946 at the Cloister just a few miles from Musgrove. Carter's home in Plains was also just 75 miles or so south of Warm Springs, where Franklin Roosevelt convalesced weeks on end for relief from polo and to be with his mistress Lucy Page Mercer Rutherfurd. Carter also vacationed at the Brinkerhoff Lodge in Grand Teton National Park (pictured right) as did presidents John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, and George H. W. Bush.

(Back to the list) Richard Nixon's regular vacation home was in Key Biscayne, Florida. Truman spent time in Key West. Herbert Hoover in Rapidan Camp in the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia. Theodore Roosevelt was on vacation in 1901 in the Adirondacks when president McKinley was shot. And, last on this short list, Abraham Lincoln vacationed (as it was) down the street from the White House on Soldiers Home (left), perhaps just enough to get away from it all!

POTUS as House Guest: A Short History

Article on the History News Network about the length of presidential vacations. James Madison took the longest single vacation at four months long. Jimmy Carter vacationed the least over a four year period at just 79 days total.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Weapons, Obama, and history

Today, President Obama spoke to the Veterans of Foreign Wars Convention in Phoenix and in his wide-ranging remarks discussed the future of military weapons programs. Obama described what he called 21st century weapons programs that will "equip our forces with the assets and technologies they need to fight and win." Included in the program are new Army helicopters for "the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance that gives our troops the advantage; the special operations forces that can deploy on a moment's notice." Gone are the big budget programs of the 80s and 90s including the F22 And for all those serving in Afghanistan and Iraq, including our National Guard and Reserve, more of the protective gear and armored vehicles that saves lives."

Obama described his vision for this 21st century military.

"We're adopting new concepts -- because the full spectrum of challenges demands a full range of military capabilities -- both the conventional and the unconventional, the ability to defeat both an armored division and the lone suicide bomber; the intercontinental ballistic missile and the improvised explosive device; 18th-century-style piracy and 21st-century cyber threats. No matter the mission, we must maintain America's military dominance.

So even as we modernize our conventional forces, we're investing in the capabilities that will reorient our force to the future -- an Army that is more mobile and expeditionary and missile defenses that protect our troops in the field; a Navy that not only projects power across the oceans but operates nimbly in shallow, coastal waters; an Air Force that dominates the airspace with next-generation aircraft, both manned and unmanned; a Marine Corps that can move ashore more rapidly in more places.

And across the force, we're investing in new skills and specialties, because in the 21st century, military strength will be measured not only by the weapons our troops carry, but by the languages they speak and the cultures that they understand."

How do Obama's shifting priorities resonant with other periods of military reform? One interesting comparison can be made with Theodore Roosevelt's efforts to reorient American military might at the turn of the 20th century. You might wonder how TRs expansionist military strategies can compare with Obama's decidedly anti-war political career. In fact, George W. Bush seems a more likely comparison. But, what I have in mind is not the rhetoric of Obama and Roosevelt, but willingness to view the world anew in a time of realignment. In a short two year period at the close of the 20th century, the United States became an imperial power.

Photograph of Roosevelt’s Great White Fleet anchored in Elliot Bay at night, May 1908. Spotlights are beaming off the fleet’s ships. Photo courtesy Washington State Digital Archives.

In 1898 and 1899, the United States annexed Hawaii and acquired the Philippines, Puerto Rico, parts of the Samoan islands as well establishing a dominate position in Cuba and throughout Latin America. Roosevelt came to office in 1901 in this new American world. He responded with a political effort to transform the American military to meet these new conditions, most dramatically taking shape with the 1907-1909 voyage of the Great white Fleet (see an announcement for the fleet's arrival in New South Wales, Australia). Likewise, Obama came to office with a new military context in a part of the world where American has little experience. In response, Obama has called for reformed military that can meet the challenges of war and peace in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan. The question is how will the military look in five years?

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

(ex)-Presidential photo ops

For this photo, North Korean dictator Kim Jung Il held two American journalists, Euna Lee and Laura Ling, prisoner for four months. The image with president Clinton was the sort of high profile publicity that Kim craves as he attempts to situate his country among elite countries, and more importantly among the small group of countries that have nuclear weapons.

This was not the first visit to North Korea by an ex-American president. President Jimmy Carter visited North Korea in 1994 and met with then president Kim Il Sung in an effort to jump start peace negotiations between the U.S. and North Korea.

Of course, Presidential travel abroad has become a very important means for the United States to both influence and protect its interests overseas. President Obama has already visited 17 foreign nations in only seven months. And, president Obama has already had an instantly infamous photo op with a president who is often at odds with the United States.

The question many people are asking today is, what role should ex-presidents play in world affairs, and what are the consequences for ex-presidential travel?

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Art, Portraits, and Presidents

This trailer for an exhibit from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts titled Peace, Liberty, and Independence": 225 Years After the Treaty of Paris considers the impact of art on the American Revolution.

The video highlights this painting of George Washington by Charles Willson Peale. The painting was one of several portraits Peale would paint of Washington. His most famous was the 1779 portrait shown in the video, which was titled Washington at Princeton. It was commissioned by the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania. The painting was so popular, Peale would make 18 copies, one of which hangs in the United Stated Senate chamber today.

This portrait of Washington painted by Peale in 1776 carries even more symbolic value. This painting was commissioned by John Hancock, president of the Continental Congress in 1776 after Washington lead the Continental Army in their surprising route of British troops from Boston. Peale completed the portrait on June 1, 1776, the day the Continental Congress voted on independence.

Peale travel to London in 1767 when he was 26 years old where he studied under Benjamin West for two years. In a series of postings on other blogs (listed below), I have written about Benjamin West's work as a history painter.

Today, portraiture is more of a ritual than a genuine artistic or historical expression. A review the recent history of presidential portrait paintings bears this out. The official home of presidential portraits is the Smithsonian Institute's National Portrait Gallery. Selections from the collection are often displayed in the White House. Presidential portraits today are painted from photographs taken during the presidency. The paintings are then unveiled at the end of a presidents term. This official digital portrait of President Obama may be used to paint his portrait.

The Obamas placed their artist mark on the White House with their choices for display. This work from artist Edward Ruscha titled “I think maybe I’ll…" was selected by the Obamas for display in the White House. It is one of over 450 works of art on display in the White house.

The Library of Congress also maintains an online collection of presidential portraits through its American Memory project. The collection titled By Popular Demand: Portraits of the Presidents and First Ladies 1789 to present includes 156 images in a variety of forms "include small engraved illustrations, prints based on paintings and daguerreotypes, large woodcut campaign banners, elegants mezzotints, and color lithographs" (see about the collection for more).