Since the founding of the United States, 42 people have been president of the United States. Time spent in the office has ranged from one month, by William Henry Harrison, who died of pneumonia in 1841, to 12 years, by Franklin Delano Roosevelt. U.S. presidents play several roles in office, including political leader, diplomat and national symbol. A new exhibit opening in Chicago just in time for President's Day (Feb 18) offers a glimpse into the lives and career's of America's leaders.
The exhibit is titled, "The American Presidency: A Glorious Burden." Chicago Historical Society President and exhibit co-curator Lonnie Bunch says the title is appropriate because "glorious burden" is how he would describe an office that requires its holder to be so many things. "Because we ask the president to not only run for office and go through all the turns and turmoil to become president, but more important than that, we ask a president to be the Commander in Chief, the chief diplomat, we ask him to manage the economy," he says. "We ask the president to do so much that affects the way we live our lives."
And the president does just about all of those things in full view of an often-critical American public. Exhibit co-curator Harry Rubenstein of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., says just about every president has had to struggle with the many aspects of the office. "This has been something that all presidents have had to struggle with: balancing this dual role of being both a politician and the head of their political party, and also being the symbol of the nation, above politics," he says.
The exhibit was created in 2000 at the Smithsonian Institution. A traveling version is beginning a nine-city U.S. tour in Chicago.
Visitors learn that the authors of the United States Constitution had considered a committee of 12 men to serve as the executive branch of government, instead of a single person.
Mr. Bunch says President George Washington was arguably the most important president in terms of defining the office. "If you look at the Constitution, it tells you how long a president serves in office, how you elect a president, but it does not tell you what a president is," he says. "In some ways it is George Washington who establishes the pattern on which all other presidents build upon."
President Washington did not want to appear to be too much like a monarch. Many of his decisions in office reflect that desire, even his choice of new chairs for the Executive Mansion, then located in Philadelphia. "What he did was he wanted a chair that said, "elegant, sophisticated, presidential," but he also wanted it to be democratic. So, he had this chair built and it is filled with horsehair. On the one hand, it is elegant, but it is also common," he says.
Different presidents have had different ideas of how they should present themselves to the American people. In 1977, President Jimmy Carter walked the length of his Inaugural Parade route, to appear closer to the public. Four years later, President Reagan traveled the parade route in the official presidential limousine.
The Smithsonian's Harry Rubenstein says some presidents have been criticized for appearing "too regal." "The classic case is Richard Nixon," he says. "After coming back from Europe he hires a costume designer to come up with new uniforms for the White House guards. They have this imperial quality: white coats with brass buttons and little black caps. The press tore into the uniforms and as soon as Nixon disappeared, so did the uniforms."
The exhibit includes presidential artifacts from throughout American history: the inkwell used by President Abraham Lincoln to write the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed slaves in the Southern United States; a pen used by President Woodrow Wilson to declare war on Germany in 1917; and the gavel used by the U.S. Congress during the 1999 impeachment trial of President Clinton.
Mr. Bunch says some presidents have been forgotten by many Americans, while others are remembered more for their failures in office than their successes. He says not every good politician makes a good president. "What you want people to recognize is even presidents that we might giggle about, like James Garfield or Millard Fillmore, at one point were the most important men in America," he says. "In some way, it is not about America electing people who are losers; it is the challenge of the office that is so hard that not everyone can handle the weight of that office."
The exhibit also offers lots of presidential trivia: George Washington delivered the shortest Inaugural Address, 135 words, at his second swearing in. William Henry Harrison delivered the longest, speaking for four hours in a freezing rain in 1841. He caught pneumonia and died a month later, becoming the first U.S. president to die in office.