Books: Inside the White House with Vicki Goldberg

Posted on January 11, 2012

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The New Hampshire primary is now over, and Americans begin the long process of deciding who will occupy the White House for the next four years. Millions and millions of dollars will be spent in the effort to claim the executive mansion, which is of course not just a mansion, but also an emblem of power. Ironically, the White House itself is not especially imposing, as far as state residences go. George Washington (who left office in 1797, before the building of the White House was completed) preferred to call the new residence “the President’s House” rather than a palace. But in fact it wasn’t really even the president’s house. It was the people’s house—they held the title on it and decided who would and would not live there, as critic and historian Vicki Goldberg points out in her new book The White House: The President’s Home in Photographs and History (Little, Brown $35) The book, a hybrid of history and photographic criticism, is a thoughtful reminder of the transient nature of White House tenancy and the power photography has had in shaping the public’s view of the presidency. You can find my recent interview with Goldberg at La Lettre de la Photographie. Below are several of the images from the book, with Goldberg’s insights about them.

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Abraham Lincoln, 1860, by Mathew Brady

When Abraham Lincoln arrived in New York in 1860 seeking the Republican Party nomination for president—this was when he gave his famous Cooper Union Address, which helped establish him as a viable candidate—he was a man nobody in the East knew anything about, except that he was a backwoods lawyer from Illinois, and that he was ugly. He was certainly gangly—he was six-feet-four inches, which was extremely uncommon at that time, and he wore a very plain black suit, and if he wasn’t really ugly, he was certainly plain. When he arrived in New York City, the Republican bigwigs met him at the train and took him straight to Mathew Brady’s photography studio, and Brady took his picture. Brady posed him very carefully, with Lincoln’s hands on a book. That was not an uncommon pose at the time—it meant that the subject was literate. Brady probably straightened out Lincoln’s suit and dusted off any train dirt, and he raised Lincoln’s collar a little bit. Lincoln said something like, “Oh, I see you’re trying to make my neck look a little shorter, Mr. Brady.” And Brady said, “Yes, that is so.” And then when Brady developed the picture he lightened Lincoln’s swarthy complexion—you could do a lot, even before Photoshop. He made Lincoln look not like an ugly backwoods lawyer, but instead like a dignified, serious, intelligent man—in short, like presidential timber. Thousands and thousands of copies of that photograph were published and disseminated. Currier & Ives, the very successful printmaking company, sold copies of it at 25 cents a photo. You could stick the picture in a hat band, you could stick it in a pocket, you could stick it in your wallet, and you could send it through the mail. And it made it possible for many, many people to see what this candidate looked like. Besides that, the tintype had recently been developed, and photographs of Lincoln were made into campaign buttons—the first campaign buttons ever produced. So Lincoln became in a certain sense a celebrity. That helped get him elected, and after that he knew the power of photographs. Later on, Brady went to the White House and was introduced to the new president, and according to Brady, Lincoln said, “Oh, I know Mr. Brady—his photograph helped get me elected.”

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Theodore Roosevelt, February 24, 1903, by the Rockwood Photo Company

This picture completely captured Roosevelt’s considerable ambition. He is centered between two chairs, which emphasized his central position in the scheme of things. He really appears to be confronting the camera, with his body at a slight angle. His hand is on the globe, literally manipulating the Earth. This was during the age of imperialism, and Roosevelt was at the forefront of constructing an American empire. Also, he had achieved global stature after winning the Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating an end to the Russo-Japanese war. It’s interesting to note that other presidents were photographed with globes—but the globe in Teddy Roosevelt’s office was bigger than any of the earlier globes.

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Franklin Delano Roosevelt on his 52nd Birthday, 1934, photographer unknown

I don’t think anyone has ever seen this photograph, because we can’t find any place that it was published. American presidents have been criticized off an on over the years for being too magnificent in their tastes—certainly since James Madison brought French dress and French china into the White House—and FDR was much criticized for his imperial dictates. He was accused of subverting and going around Congress, and there were many who hated him for it. But he had a sense of humor, and on his 52nd birthday in 1934 he staged an imperial banquet—his staff dressed up as Vestal Virgins, whether they were virginal or not, and he put himself into a Roman toga and wore a laurel wreath. He’s clearly enjoying the whole thing immensely. It’s a very funny picture.

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John F. Kennedy, February 10, 1961, by George Tames

This photo seemed to show the weight of responsibilities of the presidency, and it came to be titled “The Loneliest Job in the World.” But Thames always said that the picture was not made to convey the president carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. It was just that Kennedy had such a bad back he was more comfortable standing up to read—in this case, a newspaper—so while the presidency may in fact be the loneliest job in the world, that isn’t what the photo is really about. What was also interesting to me about this picture was in the way Tames was able to show the president in a rather new way. He didn’t need to show his face, because Kennedy’s figure was so familiar to the public.

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George W. Bush and Condoleeza Rice, September 12, 2001, by Eric Draper

I thought this was a very fascinating picture. It was particularly interesting because the picture came to me with no caption. I was doing a chapter on portraits of presidents, and I wanted to bring it up to date. This again was an entirely new way to present a president. I thought, well that’s what has happened—the president has become so recognizable that you can publish pictures of him in which he’s in the background. It is Condoleezza Rice who is the focus of the picture. It was a year after I saw the picture that I finally got the full caption, including the date on which it was taken: September 12, 2001. That is, the day after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. It puts a totally different construction on that picture, as captions often do. It’s no wonder that Rice looked so worried.

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