Versailles, Potsdam, and other grand relics of power are all imposing architecture and vistas, one always leading to another— Ossa piled upon Pelion and Olympus over all. It is a difficult feat to summon up in these surroundings the ghosts of vanished absolutism or to imagine real people actually living and working in them.
The President's House, in Washington, by contrast, is a rather republican, almost bourgeois, affair. It has a street number (1600 Pennsylvania Avenue) like other dwellings, lawns in front and in back, and a modest rose garden. While not as pretentious as many other places in our democracy, it will stand up for classical design to a good 18th-century spread erected by, say, a British nobleman of the second rank—except, of course, that there is no forest, no lake, no avenue of trees; the grounds are very limited.
Business has closed in; its borders are busy main streets. Like a candy-store proprietor, the President lives over his work place. Offices have proliferated in the house and into its wings. There are news rooms, a Mess, and other impedimenta. It is the most powerful place in America, and, after its fashion, in the world.
If power is one thing the President shared with so many vanished Bourbons and Hohenzollerns and Stuarts, another is life in a fishbowl. The White House swarms with courtiers, and to this crowded scene has been added the modern press and, particularly, the camera's eye. Once past the stiff day of the daguerreotype and able to move with ever greater convenience, this device has been following our chief magistrates and their families with relentless enthusiasm, in the mansion and everywhere else they have gone for over a century.
Sometimes this has pleased the subjects. Abraham Lincoln went so far as to say that Mathew Brady's portrait of him (and the famous Cooper Union speech) won him the election of 1860. He gladly posed for Brady's photographers thereafter, and nothing much has changed since—except the number of photographers and their skill with ever more miraculous devices. There are now motion pictures, color film, and television.
As visitors come and go, "photo opportunities" proliferate; the clicking, the flashbulbs, the antics of the photographers jumping about to find a "shot" uncluttered with their rivals; the cries for "just one more picture, sir" would seem to be distracting and tiresome.
But not at all. The National Archives and the Library of Congress swell with thousands of photographs of a hearty Harding, a patient but frozen-faced Coolidge, a normally retiring Hoover—all obediently doing the camera's bidding. Franklin Roosevelt, like his cousin Theodore before him, never seemed to take a bad picture.
By Eisenhower’s time, in fact, a Navy photographer was stationed full time at the White House, lest history miss something; and there have been official operatives at it ever since. One of them, Yoichi Okamoto, scarcely left Lyndon Johnson's side, that is, the "good side," since Johnson fancied one profile more than the other.
Today the White House photo office has swollen to a staff of five photographers. You may smile at this bit of modern inflation, but the thoughtful historian will, upon reflection, not be displeased. Now he can see in the carefully edited White House version how each modern administration wanted to look, as in the work of court painters of old, which is sometimes rather different from candid press photographs with their distressing tendency to catch one frowning or scratching an ear, or, in the case of Coolidge, pitching hay in a business suit because the photographers asked him to.
Whether an Official photographer could have done anything to mask the massive bulk of William Howard Taft or the short stature of Benjamin Harrison (seat him on phone books, if there had been any, like Tom Dewey?) or to straighten out the necktie and rumpled garments of Abraham Lincoln must remain moot questions. It is good to have whatever we can get, plain or fancy.
The camera, familiar as it is to us, is nevertheless a great miracle, superior in some ways to the pen. It is selective, but does not lie about what was before the lens. We are fortunate that, for so much of our tumultuous history, it has been opening steadily on this palace of democracy. It shows actuality, not myth—homely moments, with President Hoover and the winner of a preposterous "Typical Boy and Dog" contest; amiable ones, as in Frances Benjamin Johnston's photograph of little Quentin Roosevelt and the steward's son posed outside the mansion; and moments of such pomp and circumstance as could be mustered.
First families and First Ladies, some prim, some raffish, some homebodies, some beauties, never fail to fascinate the people who placed them in the fishbowl, even after they leave the White House. We follow them as avidly as the British do the triumphs and embarrassments of the House of Windsor, not to mention that we keep a collective eye on changes in the furniture and decor and argue about whether there should be a balcony on the South Front.
These pictures are part of a family photograph album of the American people. Old Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, poet and physician, father of the jurist, was enchanted by the camera. "The mirror with a memory," he called it. What memories it brings us from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, national palace, national homestead, for rent every four years!
If the vistas are as short as the leases, the memories are long and as palpable as if each were but a second ago. In a moment, the beautiful young Mrs. Cleveland will get up to stretch, guests will pour into the State Dining Room under TR's stuffed animal heads, young Quentin and his friend will wander off to some new devilment, and Mr. Lincoln will cross the lawn to the telegraph office for the latest bulletins from the Army of the Potomac.
You Might Also Like
Collection The 2020 White House Christmas Ornament
Every year since 1981, the White House Historical Association has had the privilege of designing the Official White House Christmas Ornament....
Podcast Presidential Leadership in Times of Challenge: FDR and LBJ
Throughout our history, presidents have faced crises that have gripped both the nation and the world. In this episode, Association...
Podcast Special Episode: Reflections on the First 49 Episodes
For the past four years, the monthly 1600 Sessions podcast has told the story of the White House through conversations with...
Podcast Researching Slavery in the President’s Neighborhood
The White House is a symbol of freedom and democracy, but from its very conception it had a paradoxical relationship...
Collection Intrepid Innovation
The computer, the car, space travel. These technologies, while seemingly old hat now, are examples of monumental technological advancement. Even...
Collection Decorative Arts in the White House
Many people approach the decor of their homes as a reflection of oneself. But what happens when a home's interior...
Podcast Women’s Suffrage and the White House
This year marks the centennial of the 19th Amendment, the culmination of the suffragists' fight to secure the right to...
Collection First Children
What was it like to grow up in a home where some of the most important political decisions are being...
Podcast Recipes from the President’s Ranch
When you’re cooking for the president and first family, your meals and recipes become a part of history. In th...
Podcast Saluting Our National History Day Award Winner
Each year, the National History Day Contest encourages more than half a million students around the world to conduct historical...
Collection Art in the White House
The collection of fine art at the White House has evolved and grown over time. The collection began with mostly...