Comedians in the White House: Our Favorite Jokes by Presidents

“Thanks, folks. I’m here all this term.”

The president of the United State is supposed to represent the people of the country. And since we Americans have a sense of humor that is strong as it is broad, it’s not surprising that presidents can occasionally crack up their audiences.

Here are a few chuckles from our Chief Executives.

John Adams

on the legislature

“In my many years I have come to a conclusion that one useless man is a shame, two is a law firm, and three or more is a congress.”

Abraham Lincoln

of a political foe

“He can compress the most words into the smallest idea of any man I ever met.”

Theodore Roosevelt

on corruption in Congress

“When they call the roll in the Senate, the Senators do not know whether to answer ‘present’ or ‘not guilty.'”

Calvin Coolidge

to a woman sitting next to President Coolidge at a dinner party told him she’d bet a friend she could get at least three words of conversation out of him.

“You lose.”

Franklin Roosevelt

on being informed by an aide that Eleanor Roosevelt (who was conducting a fact-finding tour of a penitentiary) was “in prison.”

“I’m not surprised, but for what?”

John F. Kennedy

“I was almost late here today, but I had a very good taxi driver who brought me through the traffic jam. I was going to give him a very large tip and tell him to vote Democratic and then I remember some advice Senator Green had given me, so I gave him no tip at all and told him to vote Republican.”

Lyndon B. Johnson

addressing a Marine who said, “Mr. President, this is your helicopter over here.”

“They’re all mine, son.”

Jimmy Carter

on a late resurgence of his popularity

“My esteem in this country has gone up substantially. It is very nice now when people wave at me they use all their fingers.”

Ronald Reagan

on other politicians

“I have left orders to be awakened at any time in case of national emergency — even if I’m in a Cabinet meeting.”

Bill Clinton

describing the White House

“Being president is like running a cemetery: you’ve got a lot of people under you and nobody’s listening.”

George W. Bush

“No matter how tough it gets, however, I have no intention of becoming a lame-duck president. Unless, of course, Cheney accidentally shoots me in the leg.”

Barack Obama

on his name

”Many of you know that I got my name, Barack, from my father. What you may not know is Barack is actually Swahili for ‘That One.’ And I got my middle name from somebody who obviously didn’t think I’d ever run for president.”

Donald Trump

on wife Melania Trump’s Republican National Convention speech

“The media is even more biased this year than ever before — ever. You want the proof? Michelle Obama gives a speech and everyone loves it — it’s fantastic. They think she’s absolutely great. My wife, Melania, gives the exact same speech, and people get on her case.”

Featured image: Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and George W. Bush in 2013 (Pete Souza, White House photo)

8 Weirdest Presidential Nicknames

“Tricky Dick,” “Big Steve,” and “Dude” aren’t the type of nicknames you’d expect to hear in the Oval Office, but these are just a few of the names that have been given to our heads of state. Here’s a list of eight weird presidential nicknames and the stories behind them.

1.    Abraham “The Grand Wrestler” Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln stands above a man he just thrown, staring down an astonished mob.
Lincoln, the Grand Wrestler. (Internet Archive Book Images via Wikimedia Commons)

Lincoln is known not only for his unmatched honesty but for his successful wrestling career as well — which earned him the nickname “The Grand Wrestler.” He was so successful, historians have found only one instance of Lincoln losing a wrestling match. He also helped create a move called the “choke slam” after he picked up his opponent by the throat and literally slammed him onto the ground.

Honest Abe was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in 1992.

2.    Chester “The Dude President” Arthur

Chester Arthur. (White House Historical Association)

In the late 1800s, the word dude was, in the words of linguist Arika Okrent, “a term of mockery for young men who were overly concerned with keeping up with the latest fashions.” Chester A. Arthur got his unusual nickname because of his lifestyle and love for fashion, sometimes at taxpayer expense. For example, after he became president following James Garfield’s assassination in 1881, he wasted no time spending over $30,000 ($2 million in today’s money) renovating the White House to better accommodate his parties.

Arthur was also no workaholic. He openly voiced his distaste for living in the place he worked and refused to work on Sundays and Mondays.

3.    Benjamin “The Human Iceberg” Harrison

Benjamin Harrison was the polar opposite of the socialite President Arthur, so much so that some derisively called him “The Human Iceberg.” He got his nickname because, although he could warmly engage with a crowd during speeches, he was said to be very cold and detached in person. He wasn’t often described as a mean or aggressive man, simply aloof, even among his staff.

4.    Richard “Tricky Dick” Nixon

Richard Nixon. (SEPS)

Richard Nixon earned the nickname “Tricky Dick” 22 years before Watergate in a 1950 Senate election. He was running against Helen Gahagan Douglas, a new age democrat who had been a Broadway star in the ’20s. At the height of the McCarthy era, Nixon centered his campaign not on Douglas’ platform, but on her affiliation with actors who had been accused of engaging in communist activities. This tactic was enough to win Nixon the seat and the nickname.


5.    Lyndon “Light Bulb” Johnson

Andrew Jackson with the Tennessee forces on the Hickory Grounds. (Library of Congress)

Lyndon B. Johnson took being a president “for the people” to the extreme. He was known among White House officials for running around every night and shutting off every unnecessary lights so that he wasn’t “wasting the tax payers’ money.”

6.    Andrew “Old Hickory” Jackson

Andrew Jackson had an impressive military career before he became president. His nickname comes from his time in the service and was given to him by his troops. After the War of 1812, Andrew was ordered to disband his regiments. Instead of stranding them where they were, Jackson committed his own finances and time to get his troops home. He and his fellow generals offered their horses to the sick and walked alongside their men for much of the journey. This dedication led to the nickname “Old Hickory” because hickory is one of the strongest and hardest woods native to the United States.

7.    Grover “Big Steve” Cleveland

Grover Cleveland. (Shutterstock)

Stephen Grover Cleveland ditched his first name in 1881 after his friends adopted the nickname “Big Steve.” The 250-pound Cleveland couldn’t escape the public’s fat-shaming for long, though: During his time as governor of New York, he acquired the name “Uncle Jumbo.” This avuncular epithet helped create an image that appealed to voters, family, and friends alike, and due to his ever-increasing weight, the name followed him throughout his life.

8.    Herbert “The Great Humanitarian” Hoover

Herbert Hoover is arguably one of the most disliked presidents in American history. He had the misfortune of being president during the Great Depression, and for the most part, it seemed he did little to help. Before his presidency, though, he was seen as a generous man who gave to the poor and helped feed the hungry. He did everything from risking his life to save a couple of Chinese children to helping finance feeding the entire country of Belgium after it was overrun by Germany.

However, Hoover also refused to fund large-scale relief programs during the Depression that could have alleviated hunger and suffering for hundreds of American citizens, so there is debate over how genuine his selflessness was.

8 Most Embarrassing Presidential Gaffes

Today, everything an American president says is dissected and analyzed. For anyone under such scrutiny, gaffes are inevitable, and every thoughtless, off-hand comment or tasteless remark is captured and broadcast even before the president realizes what he just said. But all such gaffes are not equally horrid.

Here is a list of the eight most regrettable utterances from the highest office.


1. No Crooks Here

Asked in an interview if there were any situation in which the president, in the best interest of America, could commit an illegal act, Richard Nixon replied, “Well, when the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.” In hindsight, he was a little off on that one.


2. What Cold War?

Debating Jimmy Carter in 1976, Gerald Ford declared, “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.” Asked if he truly meant that the nations held behind the USSR’s Iron Curtain weren’t dominated by Soviets, he repeated himself, asserting that Poland, Romania, and Yugoslavia were free of Soviet interference. It destroyed all of Ford’s credibility in foreign affairs.


3. Unsound Check

Prior to a 1984 radio broadcast, Ronald Reagan was asked to speak into the microphone for a sound check. Joking, he said, “My fellow Americans, I’m pleased to tell you today that I’ve signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.” A recording of his statement was leaked, and Soviet forces were briefly put on alert.


4. Language Tango 

In 1998 testimony before a grand jury, Bill Clinton was questioned about his improper relationship with White House aide Monica Lewinsky. In defending as truthful his statement that “there’s nothing going on between us,” he responded, “It depends on what the meaning of the word is is. If the — if he — if is means ‘is and never has been,’ that is not — that is one thing. If it means ‘there is none,’ that was a completely true statement. … Now, if someone had asked me on that day, are you having any kind of sexual relations with Ms. Lewinsky, that is, asked me a question in the present tense, I would have said no. And it would have been completely true.” His attempt at hair-splitting did not prevent his later impeachment by the House of Representatives.


5. Whose Finger Is on the Button?

Harry Truman, who liked to express himself in terse, direct statements, was asked whether the U.S. would consider using atomic weapons against the Chinese in Korea. He replied, “The military commander in the field will have charge of the use of weapons, as he always has.” Unfortunately, the commander was the impulsive, headstrong General Douglas MacArthur. Many Americans feared the General would start the next world war through the use of atomic bombs. The administration quickly issued a correction, but it didn’t erase the worries.


6. Bad Lip Reading

At the 1988 Republican Convention, candidate George H.W. Bush pledged to resist Congressional pressure to raise taxes. “They’ll push, and I’ll say no, and they’ll push again, and I’ll say, to them, Read my lips: no new taxes.” Two years later, those lips had to eat those words as Bush raised taxes, helping to drop his approval rating from 79% to 56%.


7. You’re on Candid Camera

A reporter once asked Dwight Eisenhower what important decisions his vice president, Richard Nixon, had helped him make. Eisenhower, with uncharacteristic candor, replied, “If you give me a week I might think of one.” It was such a revealing remark that the Democrats replayed it in campaign ads against Nixon in 1960.


8. Gutter Ball

On The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, Barack Obama was asked about a recent bowling event. “I bowled a 129,” he replied. Leno replied sarcastically, “That’s very good, Mr. President.” And the president added, “It’s like the Special Olympics or something.” Even before the taped show could be aired, the White House recognized the insult to participants in the Special Olympics, and campaign of apologies began.

Featured image: Rcihard Nixon (Photo by Ollie Atkins, National Archives)

Cover Gallery: Presidents

The Saturday Evening Post has featured many U.S. presidents on its cover in its nearly 200-year history. Here is a gallery of the men who have helped shape our nation.

Ulysses S. Grant speaking before a crowd
Ulysses S. Grant
By Karl Kleinschmidt
February 17, 1900


Fifteen years after his death and 23 years after leaving office, Grant appeared on the cover of the Post, in one of a series of articles by Colonel A. K. McClure on “How We Make Presidents.” Grant oversaw the elimination of Confederate nationalism and slavery, protected African-American citizenship, and supported industrial expansion.


Rutherford B. Hayes and Samuel Tilden in profile
Rutherford B. Hayes (and Samuel Tilden)
By Sarony & Bell
March 24, 1900


The election of 1876 was one of the most contentious in U. S. history. It was one of only five elections in which the person who won the most popular votes did not win the election. At one point, Tilden had 19 more electoral votes than Hayes. But a deal was brokered in which 20 disputed electoral votes were awarded to Hayes in exchange for withdrawal of federal troops from the South, putting Hayes in the White House by one vote.


An illustration of General George Washington on horseback
George Washington on Horseback
By Guernsey Moore
February 16, 1901


As he was handing over the reins of the presidency to his successor, John Adams, Washington wrote, “I hold the maxim no less applicable to public than to private affairs, that honesty is always the best policy.”


Grover Cleveland aiming a hunting rifle towards the sky
The Serene Duck Hunter Grover Cleveland
By George Gibbs
April 26, 1902


Grover Cleveland was only U. S. President to serve two non-consecutive terms in office. He appeared on seven Saturday Evening Post covers and wrote several articles for the magazine on hunting, fishing, and the plight of democracy (not necessarily in that order of importance). He is remembered for being the only president to marry while in the White House, and for his deathless statement, “What is the use of being elected or re-elected unless you stand for something?”


President William H. Taft on a dias
William H. Taft
By J. C. Leyendecker
March 6, 1909


An article in this issue of the Post proclaimed Taft to be “the heaviest President, the most traveled President, the best-natured President and the first golf player to occupy the White House.” He was among the most amiable and least ambitious men to be elected to the office. He continued most of the policies of his predecessor and friend, Teddy Roosevelt, but the two became estranged and ran against each other in 1912.

All his life, Taft tried in vain to reduce his weight. He reached 355 pounds while he served unhappily as president. He was also the only president to also serve as a justice on the Supreme Court, where he was far happier.


Boy holding a Theodore Roosevelt jack-o-lantern
Theodore Roosevelt
By J. C. Leyendecker
October 26, 1912


The Post was fascinated and charmed by Theodore Roosevelt, an energetic, progressive, young president who interrupted the long line of serious old men in the White House. Post editorials applauded his campaigns against “malefactors of great wealth” and his enthusiasm for making the U.S. a global power. Coming to the presidency in 1901 after President McKinley was shot, he was elected to a full term in 1904. He stepped aside in 1908 to let his friend, William H. Taft, successfully run for office. But in 1912, when this boy carved his pumpkin with TR’s toothy grimace and pince nez glasses, he was trying unsuccessfully for another term.


Bronze bust of Abraham Lincoln, engraved with the words "With malice toward none; with charity for all"
Abraham Lincoln
By J. C. Leyendecker
February 12, 1938


In 1862, with the country at the end of a Civil War, Lincoln called on Americans to face the challenges ahead without looking backward. He also reminded members of Congress that they would all be remembered for what they did in those perilous times:

“The dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise — with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.

“Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history. We of this Congress and this administration, will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance, or insignificance, can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation.”


Photograph of former president Harry S. Truman in suit and hat
Harry S. Truman
By John Launois
June 13, 1964


This photograph of former President Truman was taken in front of his Independence, Missouri home. In an article that Truman wrote for the Post, the 80-year-old looked back over his controversial career and explained the principles that guided him in making the most difficult decisions of his Administration — including the “firing” of Douglas MacArthur.


Portrait of President Dwight D. Eisenhower
Dwight D. Eisenhower
By Norman Rockwell
October 13, 1956


The Post hadn’t featured a sitting president on its cover since Taft’s appearance in 1909. A popular president, Eisenhower authorized the establishment of NASA, invoked executive privilege to help end McCarthyism, expanded social security, launched the interstate highway system, and established the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency which led to the development of computer networking and graphical user interfaces.


Portrait of President John F. Kennedy
John F. Kennedy
By Norman Rockwell
October 29, 1960


Among his many better known accomplishments, Kennedy also won a Pulitzer Prize (for “Profiles in Courage”), was awarded a Purple Heart, and donated his salary to charity.  He represented the new generation of politicians: he was young, good-looking, smart, and funny, and drew international admiration. Kennedy spoke of idealism at a time when the country wanted to move on to new horizons, but his aggressive stance against communism brought the country close to one war and involved it in another, in Vietnam.

This Rockwell portrait appeared a second time when the Post ran its memorial issue after Kennedy’s assassination.


Cartoon of sculpters working on a giant bust of Lyndon B. Johnson
Lyndon B. Johnson
By Blake Hampton
September 11, 1965


President Johnson was a politician’s politician, and he was a paradox. He was cynical and calculating enough to be a powerful force in Washington, but also a champion of the poor and the man who launched a “War on Poverty. Johnson signed several civil rights bills that banned racial discrimination in public facilities, interstate commerce, the workplace, and housing. He signed the Voting Rights Act and the Immigration and Nationality Act into law. When he came to the White House after Kennedy’s assassination, he enjoyed a long honeymoon period with the press. But he lost the support of the media, and many Americans, with his determination to continue sending American soldiers to Vietnam.

Portrait of Richard Nixon
Richard Milhous Nixon
By Norman Rockwell
November 5, 1960


President Nixon is best remembered for the Watergate scandal and his subsequent resignation, but he also opened diplomatic relations with China, initiated détente with the Soviet Union, and established the Environmental Protection Agency. He ended U.S. involvement in Vietnam, and supported the Equal Rights Amendment, affirmative action, and the food stamp program. It was ironic that a man who rose in politics through his anti-communist stance made such significant progress with the communist governments of Russia and China.

Rockwell painted this portrait of candidate Nixon nine years before Nixon won the presidency.


Photo of Gerald Ford set in a zodiac diagram
Gerald R. Ford
By J. Moore
January 1, 1975


In this feature in the Post, “astrologer to the stars” Carroll Righter analyzed President Ford’s astrological profile, terming him a Moonchild. Ford has the distinction of being the only person to have served as both Vice President and President of the United States without being elected to either office.  It has not been determined if the alignment of the stars or planets was a factor.

Entering the White House abruptly when President Nixon resigned, he drew broad support by pardoning the men who’d avoided serving in Vietnam by illegally dodging the draft. But much of his popularity melted away when he also pardoned Nixon, sparing the nation a long, rancorous, divisive spectacle of a trial.


Portrait of Ronald Reagan
Ronald Reagan
By Lucian Lupinski
March 1, 1982


Once a Democrat, Reagan switched to the Republican party as his views became more conservative. As president, he supported Afghan rebels opposing Russia’s invasion of their land and pushed for a space-based missile system to protect America from a nuclear attack. In the end, though, he was the president whose policies and tactful diplomacy with Russian leaders would end the Cold War.


Portrait of George H. W. Bush
George H. W. Bush
By Lucian Lupinski
October 1, 1988


George H. W. Bush appeared on the Post cover when he was still vice president, but was poised to win the presidential election, held a month later. He is the oldest living former president and vice president.

Bush continued many of Reagan’s policies, but he bridled when journalists compared him unfavorably to the charismatic Reagan. He was portrayed by some as being weak, sheltered, and a wimp. Yet it was Bush, not Reagan, who served in World War II and survived being shot down as a Navy pilot. His single term was noted for his authorization of the military overthrow of a corrupt dictator in Panama and the smashing of Iraq’s force in Kuwait though Operation Desert Storm.

Smartphone Deniers

Sometimes I dream I’ve lost my iPhone. I’m adrift in the universe, cut off from my Facebook, Google, Twitter, email, texting, YouTube, livestream, and camera apps. It’s a terrifying prospect.

Like millions of Americans, I’m unashamedly addicted to my silicon-stuffed little slab. In just 10 years’ time, smartphones have managed to both transform and torture our culture (and me). These days, rather few of us can get to the morning’s first cuppa without reflexively checking in with our iOS- or Android-powered phone. Pathetic, eh?

Yet there are perfectly decent people — maybe you’re among them? — who dismiss smartphones, or even ­resent them. They just want to be left the hell alone by the millions of buzzing, beeping, and vibrating apps that are the signature of these pricey devices. Why? Because they don’t see the point of having massive processing power — not to mention GPS tracking — in the palm of their hand.

For some consumers, of course, cost is a hang-up, especially as you can grab a sweet little flip phone or bar-style model for under 20 bucks. Ramon Llamas, a market research analyst at IDC, which focuses on mobile-phone trends, told me the choice of a basic phone over a do-everything smartphone “really just comes down to one thing: cost.” Except that does not really tell the entire story.

Nancy Wintner, a veteran PR consultant in Pittsburgh, represents another perspective. “I have no interest in carrying my computer around in my purse,” she said to me, emphatically. She uses a bar phone that has limited functionality. “It meets my needs. I don’t feel disconnected from the world. I can always just pick up the phone and make a call.”

People like Wintner are not necessarily tech-averse outliers. They merely “choose to avoid the constant bombardment of information,” Bob O’Donnell, chief analyst at TECHnalysis Research, told me.

Others, according to O’Donnell, avoid smartphones largely because they cling to an old-fashioned notion of independence. “They’ve chosen to walk away from the overwhelming connectedness of modern life. It’s a retro thing.” These are the same folks who are drawn to the resurgence of vinyl records. “They are making a philosophical statement,” O’Donnell said.

Not surprisingly, one finds a diminishing number of smartphone users in the upper age ranges — but not by much. Until about the age of 75, O’Donnell said, people are generally willing smartphone users. After that, less so.

“I think it would complicate my life, which is full and rich. I don’t want to be as obsessed as everybody else, Facebooking and Twittering all the time.”

Someone like Snow Philip, a part-time journalist in Key West, Florida, is, at 74, right on the cusp. Philip owns a smartphone — it was a gift — but she’s packed it away. “I think it would complicate my life, which is full and rich. I don’t want to be as obsessed as everybody else, Facebooking and Twittering all the time,” she said when I called her on her landline. “It’s very unattractive to me.”

And then we have the last of the BlackBerry hangers-on, those stubborn few. Their devices today incorporate some smartphone-style goodies but are sparer by far. Among the most high-profile proponents is Michelle Kosinski, White House correspondent for CNN. Maybe you’ve seen her tapping away on her little BlackBerry in the White House briefing room. “I really love its simplicity and the [physical] keyboard,” Kosinski told me. “Emotionally, when I touch it, I think through it. And iPhone apps just annoy me.”

Most others in the White House press corps “have conceded defeat,” Kosinski said of the once ubiquitous BlackBerrys, but she’s in until the bitter end. Just in case, she’s stashed a bunch of older models in a drawer at home. “It may be the longest relationship I’ve ever had,” she said to me with a guilty giggle.

To those of us who love our phones to excess, Kosinki’s sentiment, though intended to be cute, has the sad, unmistakable ring of truth.

Cable Neuhaus writes about popular culture and media.

Hissing Cousins

Hissing Cousins book cover
Excerpted from Hissing Cousins by Marc Peyser and Timothy Dwyer. Copyright © 2015 by Timothy Dwyer and Marc Peyser. Published by arrangement with Nan A. Talese, an imprint of Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Random House.

The president might have insisted that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” but he evidently forgot to check with his wife first. Eleanor was something of a nervous wreck on March 4, 1933, her first Inauguration Day as first lady. She stood, shivering and apprehensive, as Franklin leaned on their son James’ shoulder and walked deliberately from the East Portico of the Capitol out to the center of the inauguration platform, 146 daunting feet away. While his landmark “fear itself” speech took only 15 minutes, the ensuing parade stretched for six miles and several hours. “The crowds were so tremendous, and you felt that they would do anything — if only someone would tell them what to do,” Eleanor recalled. “It was very, very solemn, and a little terrifying.” The president wouldn’t budge until the last of the 40 marching bands had filed by, but she had to leave early to get back to the White House to greet the 1,000 guests invited for afternoon tea and sandwiches (though 3,000 actually showed up). Later that night, the woman who had dreaded dances and cotillions her entire life would leave Franklin behind again to attend the inaugural ball.

And that was the easy part of the day. A few hours earlier that same evening, she had endured the most fearsome event, when the extended Roosevelt family arrived to celebrate its latest White House triumph. There were 75 of them in all for a buffet dinner, and not a drop to drink. (Prohibition wasn’t repealed until December.) The invitation list was drawn up by Sara Delano Roosevelt, FDR’s mother, who sat near her Franklin in the small drawing room, swollen with pride and expensive jewelry, waiting to welcome the guests. Eleanor discarded the usual first-lady protocol and greeted the visitors herself at the door, among them cousins Teddy and Helen Robinson and Archie Roosevelt from her side; cousins Laura and Lyman Delano and Aunt Kassie Collier from his. And then came Cousin Alice.

At first, no one knew exactly how to react. After all, this was a party for a victory Alice had tried to snuff out like a kitchen fire. The indomitable Sara chatted with her amiably; Alice had the good sense to limit her conversation to praising the current President Roosevelt, as opposed to the previous one (aka Alice’s father). Then she walked over to Eleanor. Alice thought her cousin could use a few pointers. “You’ll be able to learn after a while how to handle affairs like this,” she told Eleanor, glancing around the roomful of their collective kin. “I’ll help you if you like.” Not everyone appreciated Alice’s condescending brand of goodwill. “Mother expressed her thanks, her nervousness mounting under her cousin’s patronage,” said Eleanor and Franklin’s son Elliott. “Almost two years of widowhood had done nothing to curb [Alice’s] style or her irresistible compulsion to lord it over Mother.”

Cousin Alice cursed nearly every one of Franklin's policies and mercilessly mocked Eleanor, all the while accepting virtually every invitation to the White House.

Alice’s lifetime claim on the White House was as strong as ever in 1933. She didn’t only drop by on Franklin’s first day. She had also been there the day before to visit the previous residents — the Hoovers. Alice said she wanted to take Paulina, her 8-year-old daughter, over to say good-bye, but there was clearly a dose of morbid curiosity in her motivation. “They looked like figures from waxworks, they looked so unalive. Poor, stiff, bruised, wounded,” she said. “That was the third of March. The next night — dinner at Franklin’s! Dinner at the White House! Riots of pleasure! All of us there, all of us having a good time. It couldn’t have been a more incredible contrast.”

Alice must have been in a very small circle of people in history who were invited to visit the outgoing president on his last day in office and the man who defeated him on his first. The fact that she showed up to celebrate with the extended family wasn’t entirely shocking, though given her rabid support for the Republican ticket it was a little like a player from the losing Super Bowl team dropping by the winners’ locker room to guzzle champagne. In the years that followed, what surprised and puzzled onlookers was that Alice kept coming back. Faced with the grim reality of now being an “out-of-season” Roosevelt (a phrase coined by Alexander Woollcott), she had two options for dealing with the rise of her Hyde Park relatives: make peace with them (as her brother Kermit did), or take a vow of ice-cold hostility (her brother Ted’s route). Naturally she chose both options. She cursed nearly every one of Franklin’s policies and mercilessly mocked Eleanor, all the while accepting virtually every invitation to the White House. The more belligerent members of her immediate family were disgusted by her willingness to associate with the White House usurpers. “I could not help feeling that it was like behaving in like fashion to an enemy during a war,” said Alice’s devoted brother Ted, who rarely disagreed with her on anything. “More so, for enemies generally only fight for territory, trade, or some material possessions. These are fighting us for our form of government, our liberties, the future of our children.”

For her part, Eleanor had expected to follow the same below-the-radar path as the previous first ladies. “I knew what traditionally should lie before me,” she said. “I had watched Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt and had seen what it meant to be the wife of the president, and I cannot say I was pleased by the prospect.” Her enforced vow of monotony lasted exactly two days. On the Monday after the inauguration, Eleanor conducted a press conference in the Red Room. That was noteworthy on its own; no first lady had ever held her own White House press conference before. Eleanor also added a twist: she only allowed female reporters to attend. It was her form of affirmative action, a way to underscore the disadvantages women faced in most professions, including the media. The first conference attracted 35 female reporters, some of whom had to sit on the floor because there weren’t enough chairs. Eleanor arrived carrying a box of candied fruit and passed it around as if she were hosting a neighborhood bridge party. There was a decidedly clubby feeling at her conferences. She focused on topics she felt would interest women and pledged not to answer anything blatantly political, which she insisted was the president’s realm. When she seemed to stray too close to hot-button territory, it was the women reporters who would sometimes caution her by yelling out, “Oh, Mrs. Roosevelt, you’d better put that off the record!” The female press corps developed a strong (and some would say unprofessional) sense of loyalty, even devotion, to her.

It’s no wonder that Edward Bok, TR’s old friend and the editor of the Ladies Home Journal, commissioned Alice to write an article called “The Ideal Qualifications for a President’s Wife.” Journalistically, it was inspired casting. After all, who better to opine on Washington tradition — and how to break it — than Princess Alice. She took a poke or two at her cousin, but she wrote in a sort of invisible ink, focusing on Eleanor’s means — her noblesse oblige and obsession with saving the world — rather than her actual policy choices. If Eleanor was overstepping her boundaries as the president’s wife, Alice certainly wasn’t going to say so directly, even as she reminded readers that the first lady was still fair game. “There is always the possibility,” she warned, “that people will say, ‘We didn’t elect her. What is she horning in for?’”

Eleanor horned in because, like her uncle Ted, she knew the value of a bully pulpit. A meeting with the first lady, or just her brief presence at an event, could shine a light on an issue or problem she cared about. In addition to her own priorities, she continued her now-familiar role as her husband’s stand-in. In New York, as the wife of a governor in a wheelchair, she was obligated to travel from one corner of the state to the other; as the wife of a president in a wheelchair, she had to do it on a national scale. In her first year as first lady, she logged 38,000 miles (and even more the next). She was the first first lady to travel by airplane, though she was perfectly happy using less stylish modes of transportation. She frequently spent the night on a train, sometimes sleeping in her seat if a sleeper car wasn’t available.

In November 1933, she made the cover of Time magazine (more than six years after Alice earned that honor). The apt headline was “Eleanor Everywhere.” The Time cover had been published to coincide with the release of Eleanor’s book of essays called It’s Up to the Women, an odd mix of platitudes (“For every normal human being, fresh air is essential”) and impassioned arguments about the role of women in the country and the world. She wasn’t the only Roosevelt moonlighting as an author. The same week that Eleanor’s book was released, Alice published her long-awaited autobiography, Crowded Hours (a favorite phrase of her father’s). Derived in large part from a series of articles Alice had written for the Ladies’ Home Journal, Crowded Hours was a fairly bloodless political memoir. Still, the book sold well, in large part because Alice had said so little for the record over her 30-plus years of celebrity. Crowded Hours was at the top of the nonfiction best-seller lists for every city east of the Mississippi on November 13, 1933. That was the week Eleanor’s book hit the stands. It’s Up to the Women only made the list in Washington, where it beat out Crowded Hours for the top spot.

As it turned out, the cousins’ books were only an introduction to what became a long-running media sparring match. The next round, ironically, was touched off by Will Rogers, world-famous actor, writer, vaudevillian, and wit. Rogers was one of a handful of prominent people who was a friend equally to Alice and to Eleanor. In August 1935, the 55-year-old Rogers was touring Alaska with the famed aviator Wiley Post when their plane crashed on takeoff, killing them both. His column, Will Rogers Says, had been a fixture in American newspapers for 13 years, read daily by 40 million people. Suddenly the McNaught Syndicate needed another pithy, informed, well-known writer to fill Rogers’ space. McNaught’s founder, V.V. McNitt, thought Princess Alice was just the woman for the job. The trouble was, as much as Alice admired writers, she didn’t enjoy writing herself. The drudgery didn’t appeal to her, though she’d never say that in so many words. “I shall never write another book,” she’d later joke. “My vocabulary is too limited.” But McNitt pursued her for months, and he finally prevailed. Alice’s appeal was strong enough that more than 75 newspapers bought her column sight unseen.

What Alice Thinks debuted in January 1936, and just as McNaught had hoped, she zeroed in on all aspects of the New Deal. But while Will Rogers had been a master at bringing the high-and-mighty down to the level of the average Joe, Alice was such a deep Capitol Hill insider that she was practically entombed. In What Alice Thinks, she would launch into an attack on boondoggles at Passamaquoddy or the persecution of General Hagood, all with the assumption that her readers were as in the know as the guests at her A-list dinner parties. Less than two months into her run many readers were wondering just what was Alice thinking?

What Alice Thinks looked all the more ponderous next to a new column by another celebrated Washington woman: Eleanor. When word spread that a column from Alice was in the offing, the editors at the United Feature Syndicate were eager for a column by the first lady that could compete. But they weren’t sure that the multitasking and peripatetic first lady could pull it off. At the time of its launch, only 25 papers bought the column, which was called My Day.

The early columns were chatty slices of the first lady’s daily life, both in her official capacity as a White House hostess and as a mother and grandmother. But what made My Day stand out was the context. Many of her mundane stories might sound unexceptional in the social-media era, but no one had ever pulled the curtain back like that before on a world so close to the president. Discovering that the first lady of the United States had a lot in common with the average housewife was a revelation.

While Alice’s lens was tightly focused on Washington, politics, and the dance of legislation, Eleanor’s was a broader and softer report on the people and events that whirled through her active life. If Alice spent one day squawking about cabinet secretaries fighting for their share of WPA funds, on that same day Eleanor might recount her trip to the District of Columbia Training School for Delinquent Girls. Alice was the cynic to Eleanor’s idealist, the same roles they had played since they were teenagers. “I am trying terribly hard to be impartial and malevolent at the same time,” she told Newsweek when her column debuted, “but when I think of Frank and Eleanor in the White House I could grind my teeth to powder and blow them out my nose.”

Alice was perhaps the only woman on the planet who referred to the president as Frank. Naturally, she was more formal to his face. “I called him ‘Franklin,’” she said. “He used to wince, as if he’d prefer me to call him ‘Mr. President.’ That would annoy him, you see. But we had a very good time together.” Which is to say, she had a good time needling him, and he tolerated — and maybe even appreciated — her outrageous sense of humor.
Eleanor found herself caught in her cousin’s web, too, thanks to her cousin’s gift for mimicry. With her teeth thrust out, her jaw tucked in, and her voice ratcheted to a quivering upper register, Alice’s take on Eleanor came across as something like a talking horse just out of a proper British finishing school. Her act started as a cocktail party trick, but soon became infamous enough that Washington gossip columnists would report whenever Alice added new features to it. Marion Dickerman recalled being at a White House luncheon when Eleanor asked Alice an awkward question: “Alice, why don’t you give one of your impersonations of me now.” Dickerman recalled that the always self-assured Alice seemed, briefly, uneasy before performing the routine that had been generating guffaws at parties across the capital. Eleanor obligingly laughed along. If she was hurt, she didn’t give Alice the satisfaction of responding. “The most helpful criticism I ever received,” Eleanor wrote, “was a takeoff of me on the radio done by my cousin, Alice Longworth. She did it for me one afternoon and I could not help being amused and realizing that it was a truthful picture, and that I had many things to correct.”

Not surprisingly, the Washington chattering class started predicting Alice’s exile from the White House once and for all. The story became such a hot topic that the reporters at one of Eleanor’s weekly press conferences asked if it were true. Eleanor denied it categorically. But Alice herself told a different story. Years later, she insisted that Eleanor dropped a series of hints to stay away:

“When Eleanor came to the White House, she said to me, ‘You are always welcome here but you must never feel that you have to come.’ So, [I went] with great alacrity and enthusiasm and had a lovely, malicious time. Then a little while later I had another communication from Eleanor. ‘I’m told that you are bored at coming to the White House, and I never want you to be that, so …’ So I wrote her a very cheerful reply, saying, ‘How disagreeable people are, trying to make more trouble than there already is between us, and of course I love coming to the White House. It couldn’t be more fun and I have always enjoyed myself immensely, etc., etc.’ Needless to say, she never asked me there again.”

It was true that Alice could test the limits of her cousins’ tolerance. When James Roosevelt proposed that his father appoint Alice to some unnamed government commission, FDR’s reply, “which I shall censor somewhat,” Eleanor told a friend, “was: ‘I don’t want anything to do with that woman!’” But the invitations to the White House kept coming. Several newspapers reported that Franklin and Eleanor invited Alice to the White House on February 12, 1934. That was Alice’s 50th birthday, and Eleanor knew that her cousin would enjoy celebrating the landmark at her old home.

It had always been Eleanor’s nature to try to smooth over disagreements that might rattle family harmony. But she could easily have abandoned her peacekeeper role. After all, she was the one now sitting in the White House. She was the one whose column had become a success nationwide, appearing in 62 papers by 1938. On the other hand, by June 1937 Alice’s career as a columnist was put to bed, 18 months after it began.

From the Archive: Click here to read Eleanor’s and Alice’s opinions on the Kennedys, Khrushchev, and other politicians.

Hissing Cousins book cover

Excerpted from Hissing Cousins by Marc Peyser and Timothy Dwyer. Copyright © 2015 by Timothy Dwyer and Marc Peyser. Published by arrangement with Nan A. Talese, an imprint of Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Random House.

Falling for Jackie Kennedy

Don’t Miss Out: Limited-edition commemorative reprint of the John F. Kennedy In-Memoriam issue in its original as-published format. Available for purchase at

This is the sixth installment of our series “Reconstructing Kennedy.”

© SEPS 2013
Jacqueline Kennedy © SEPS 2013

Hollywood couldn’t have dreamed up two better characters than John and Jacqueline Kennedy to portray America’s ideal, romantic couple. She was elegant, poised, and incredibly well dressed. He was the newly elected president of the United States. Young, sophisticated and good looking, they seemed like the polar opposites of the previous residents of the White House, Dwight and Mamie Eisenhower. The Kennedy’s attractiveness quotient rose even higher just two weeks after the election when Jacqueline gave birth to a son.

Many Americans only got their first look at Jackie during the inaugural ceremonies. She’d remained at home during the campaign under her obstetrician’s order, though she was still giving interviews, taping TV commercials, and writing a weekly newspaper column called “Campaign Wife.”

In the following months, Americans read about the dazzling receptions she hosted, how she put international visitors at ease with her command of French and Spanish, and even got on the good side of Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev. Newspapers and magazines also ran stories on Jackie’s wardrobe and her French-influenced look. Copies by several domestic designers soon appeared on American women across the country.

President John F. Kennedy and wife Jacqueline Kennedy at a White House soiree. © SEPS 2013
President John F. Kennedy and wife Jacqueline Kennedy at a White House soiree. © SEPS 2013

But Jackie made her most memorable impression as first lady in 1962, when she conducted a televised tour through the recently refurbished White House.

The makeover had been sorely needed. As the Post reported in 1963 (“How Jackie Restyled the White House”), President Truman had ordered massive renovations to the White House’s structure in 1945 to prevent the building from collapsing. But the interior design had been an afterthought, entrusted to a hotel contractor who gave the rooms a bland, institutional look. One Washington reporter wrote, “The White House is safe, all right, but it has completely lost its charm. The restoration took the heart out of the building…Now it has no more appeal than the Pentagon.”

Arriving at the White House, the Kennedys discovered most of the furnishings dated back only as far as 1902. The paintings were all forgettable works that previous presidents hadn’t bothered to take with them when they left.

What Jackie proposed was more than just a refurnishing. Her intention was to build a collection of White House furnishings that would reflect the long heritage of American design. Under her direction, the Executive Mansion acquired 500 items of furniture and art. Some were former White House furnishings that she bought back from private ownership. Many other items came from wealthy collectors, but several were donated from average Americans who offered up their antique silverware, wallpaper, and chamber pots. When completed, the collection was protected by a law, proposed by Jackie, that would forbid the removal of any items from the White House.

Jacqueline Kennedy © SEPS 2013
Jacqueline Kennedy © SEPS 2013

The tour of the completed project was televised on February 14 when Jackie showed the new acquisitions and explained how each room was furnished in the style of a different era. The Lincoln room, for example, contained only furniture of the Civil War period and included Lincoln’s own portrait of Andrew Jackson and a table purchased by his wife, Mary. Jackie was seen that night by over 80 million Americans.

Jackie made her most enduring impression when she was no longer first lady. She remained in the public eye from the death of her husband right up to his burial at Arlington Cemetery. Throughout that time, she displayed a fortitude and courage that few had suspected in her.

Looking back at articles about her in the Post, it’s surprising to see how good a job she did as first lady even though it was a job she never wanted. Interviewed for the Post by an old friend (“An Exclusive Chat With Jackie Kennedy”), she admitted to a chronic shyness. “I can’t stand being out in front. I know it sounds trite, but what I really want is to be behind [John] and to be a good wife and mother.”

It wouldn’t have surprised John Kennedy. His wife had always impressed him with her quiet strength. Years earlier, he told a friend, “My wife is a shy, quiet girl, but when things get rough, she can handle herself pretty well.”

It’s no surprise that even today, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy remains an icon in American history.

Pre-Watergate Nixon letter expresses excitement for recording presidential history

Cover of the Fall 1972 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Photo by Ollie Atkins

Buried in the archives of The Saturday Evening Post are treasures from the nation’s nearly 300 years of history, whether in vintage advertising, classic illustrations, or insightful reporting that illuminates life in America of decades now passed.

Frequently we find old articles with an interesting point of view, providing us with insight on specific historical events from the people who lived through them.

And in the case of this gem from our Fall 1972 issue (right), some articles look much different when measured with the hindsight of history.

Then-President of the United States Richard Nixon wrote this letter for the Post in relation to a photo essay by official White House photographer Ollie Atkins, which appeared in the same issue. The full text of Nixon’s letter appears below. Click here to see the photo essay as it originally appeared in the Post.


To Communicate Dimensions of Truth

By Richard Nixon

In the archives and libraries of America are carefully preserved the records of each of our Presidents—letters, minutes, diaries, memoranda—and now even tape—recorded interviews with those who are a part of past administrations. But only in recent times has the strong effort been made to preserve a complete photographic account of Presidential history.


Though I often joke with Ollie Atkins, the official White House photographer, about his persistent efforts always to be in the right place at the right time with his cameras, I must say that I am very happy indeed with the modern practice of keeping a full photographic record of the Presidency. For as I look over Ollie’s pictures, including those which make up the photographic essay on these pages, I realize again their unique ability to communicate dimensions of truth which are often missed in the written record.

Through these pictures, for example, I can feel again the sense we all had in Peking and Moscow of participating in one of history’s watershed moments. And I am reminded, too, as I look through these photos, of nuances of personality in those I have known which are sometimes difficult to put into language. By helping to preserve the mood, the spirit, the character of a person or an event—or an entire administration—the photographer can perform, I believe, a unique public service.

When historians study all the records of the Nixon years, I hope they will conclude that these were good years, years in which we ended a difficult war, achieved significant arms control agreements and made peaceful negotiation the way of life among nations. I hope, too, that this Administration will be remembered as one which reordered an economy which had grown dependent on wartime spending, decentralized and revitalized a Federal bureaucracy which had grown rigid and unresponsive, and helped a divided Nation substitute the rule of reason for confrontation and disorder.

There have been moments of disappointment in these years, of course, but there have been many more moments of great satisfaction. After nearly four years as President, I believe we can be proud of the record we are leaving for those who will write the history of this Administration—even as I am proud of this photographic essay concerning some of its highlights

{signed} Richard Nixon

The Presidents and the Press

Obama Press Conference
The Obama administration used a secret subpoena to obtain two months of records on 20 separate Associate Press phone lines. Photo courtesy Rena Schild /

President Obama isn’t the first president to incur the wrath of America’s media. For most of his first term, he had a fairly good relationship with the press. If he was relentlessly attacked by some networks, he was given fairly friendly coverage from others. But all that goodwill flew out the window when the press learned that the Department of Justice had been trying to track down leaks of sensitive information by subpoenaing the phone records and emails of reporters.

As we look back at former presidents’ relations with the press, we realize how different it was in the days before our defense relied so heavily on secret intelligence.

Coming into the 20th century, newspapers were on fairly good terms with the president, according to reporter Herbert Corey. His 1932 Post article “The Presidents and the Press” explains that the media got their stories from a small handful of reporters selected by the chief executive.

President Theodore Roosevelt added a new feature to this arrangement. He would announce an impending action to a reporter on Sunday, knowing there would be little news in the Monday morning newspapers to compete for readers’ attention.

When the story appeared the next day, he watched the reactions from Congress, the press, and the public. If the response was too critical, Roosevelt would abandon the idea. And he would deny the story, leaving the friendly reporter alone to face the public.

President William Howard Taft came to the White House assuming that this pleasant arrangement would continue. His favorite reporter would arrive daily at the White House. Taft would chat with him and pass on whatever news he felt like sharing.

Soon other reporters were clamoring for the same access. Taft relented and invited in a select number for informal briefings. But when one of these newly admitted reporters published an “impertinently personal” story about Taft, the president was enraged. He petulantly canceled every appointment he had that day and refused to attend a state dinner in the evening. Eventually the first lady, Helen Herron Taft, pressured him into attending the dinner, but he arrived late. The story behind his late arrival was widely shared among Washington’s reporters, but none dared to print it for fear of causing another presidential outburst.

President Woodrow Wilson realized Taft’s methods of communicating with the press wouldn’t meet modern demands for more timely and more detailed news. He believed the American public wanted to know everything the president was doing. And so, one hundred years ago, he held the first press conference. At first, things went well; Wilson had already shown a talent for handling the press when he was governor of New Jersey. As president, he assumed reporters would appreciate his openness and would eagerly pass on his message to the public. He soon realized that they were straying from his points and was incensed when a reporter printed a personal story about his daughter. When he appeared before the correspondents, according to Corey, he said what many presidents have wanted to tell the press, “I am about to address you as Woodrow Wilson and not as the president. … This must stop. On the next offense I shall do what any other indignant father would do. I will punch the man who prints it in the nose.”

President Calvin Coolidge and Reporters
As seen in this Library of Congress photo, Calvin Coolidge enjoyed very pleasant meetings with the press—so pleasant that he held 520 press conferences in four years.

Wilson enjoyed generally enthusiastic support from the press as he sent American troops to fight in the First World War. But after the war, the newspapers were highly critical of Wilson’s Peace Treaty and his League of Nations, which would involve the United States in a global peacekeeping body. With many newspapers bitterly attacking what he felt was the only way of preventing future wars, Wilson lost his trust in the press. In 1919, he stopped holding press conferences.

By the time he left the White House, Wilson was so disillusioned with the press, according to Corey, he warned his successor, Warren G. Harding, “Be careful what you say to the press.”

But Harding was a newspaperman. He’d successfully run Ohio’s Marion Daily Star for 30 years. Corey reports that Harding said, “I know all about reporters. They will not throw me down.” Which, of course, they went and did.

“He had assumed they were friendly. Most of them were friendly to him, personally, but professionally they were cold as snakes,” writes Corey. In 1922, Harding made an uninformed remark about a naval treaty, implying that Japan was not covered by the mutual-protection agreement. “Instead of warning Mr. Harding, they printed the story. It was hardly on the streets before the Secretary of State was in the White House to offer his resignation.”

From this point on, Harding insisted that all questions from the press be submitted in writing, which might prevent him from making careless remarks. And when Congress began investigating the illegal sale of government oil by Harding’s secretary of the interior, he found he had very few friends in the press corps.

President Calvin Coolidge had an easier time than Harding, not because the press had suddenly become more respectful, but because he entered the White House during a time of peace and prosperity. The press was less inclined to dig into his remarks for an exposé. Also, ‘Silent Cal’ was not given to talking too freely; he made no embarrassing slips of the tongue that reporters could turn into news items.

The good times that prompted the press to take it easy with Coolidge ended seven months after his successor took office. The American press had sung the praises of President Herbert Hoover when he’d saved war-torn Belgium from starvation, and he’d been secretary of Commerce during the Coolidge prosperity. But when the economy collapsed and unemployment rose to 25 percent, the press became highly critical.

President Theodore Roosevelt and Reporters
President Theodore Roosevelt at his Sagamore Hill home telling reporters what to say about him. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

President Franklin Roosevelt got better treatment from the press simply for not being Hoover. In time, however, the criticism grew, particularly when Roosevelt pushed hurried new legislation and—especially—when he proposed expanding the Supreme Court with a few, administration-friendly judges. Yet, even with all the hostility, the press never mentioned Roosevelt’s paralysis, or printed pictures of the president in his wheel chair. It was a courtesy never requested by the White House but extended nonetheless.

All the way up to the time of President Harry Truman, the press conferences had been off the record. If the president misspoke, he had the chance to offer a corrected quote. So when Truman told reporters in 1950, “I think the greatest asset that the Kremlin has is Senator [Joseph] McCarthy,” he worked with reporters to issue a more acceptable do-over: “The greatest asset that the Kremlin has is the partisan attempt in the Senate to sabotage the bipartisan foreign policy of the United States.”

Dwight Eisenhower was the first president to speak entirely on record in the press conferences. He was also the first to televise the event. In 1960, the press’s regard for the war-hero president changed after it learned the government had lied about the U-2 spy planes that had been flying over the Soviet Union. That scandal ushered in a new era of heightened suspicion and mistrust, which President John F. Kennedy inherited. A new spirit of adversity grew as the administration began launching covert operations. The Bay of Pigs, the attempts to assassinate Castro, and the introduction of American ‘advisors’ to Southeast Asia—all increased the skepticism and, at times, outright hostility of the media.

We’ve come a long way from the days when the White House could safely pass war news to the public because it was weeks, or months, old. Today’s conflicts are, more than ever before, wars of time-sensitive intelligence. We shouldn’t be surprised that there are conflicts between our government, whose job is the gathering of intelligence, and our press, whose job is to broadcast it.

The Long Tradition of the Smear Campaign

Daddy Cleveland
"Another Voice for Cleveland"

There’s always the hope, with the start of every presidential campaign, that this time it will be different. This year, maybe the candidates will offer intelligent, practical solutions to the country’s problems. They emphasize what they’ll do, not dwell on the many shortcomings of their opponent.

And usually we’re disappointed. No matter how earnest and well-intentioned a presidential campaign begins, by the time it approaches the finish line, it usually assumes an atmosphere somewhere between a carnival midway and a bar fight.

We had an intelligent, respectable election once, and the winner was George Washington. By the time the next election came around, the gloves were off and the tar buckets filled, as Jack Anderson pointed out. [The Pulitzer-prize winning author’s article—”The Dirtiest Campaign Tricks in History”—appeared in the Post on November, 1976]

In the 1796 election, John Adams suffered a blow when the Boston Independent Chronicle alleged that during the Revolution he had publicly supported Washington while surreptitiously attempting to have the General cashiered. In truth, it was Adams’s second cousin, Sam, who had sought Washington’s scalp.

Adams’s opponent, Thomas Jefferson … was accused of being the son of a half-breed Indian and a mulatto father. Voters were warned that Jefferson’s election would result in a civil war and a national orgy of rape, incest, and adultery.

Andrew Jackson's ultimate goal, according to opponents.

Andrew Jackson [was portrayed by his opponents] as a bloodthirsty wild man; a trigger-happy brawler; the son of a prostitute and a black man… his older brother had been sold as a slave [and] Jackson … had put to death soldiers who had offended him. Worst of all, Jackson and his wife were depicted as adulterers. Through a technical mixup, Rachael Jackson had married Andrew before her first husband divorced her. “Ought a convicted adulteress and her paramour husband be placed in the highest offices of this free and Christian land?” screamed the Cincinnati Gazette. Rachael succumbed to a heart attack before the couple could move into the White House, and many of Jackson’s advocates attributed her death to the calumnious campaign of 1828.

In 1839, Martin Van Buren was accused of being too close to the Pope, when, in fact, he had done little more than correspond with the Vatican in his job as Secretary of State under Andrew Jackson. His opponents, nevertheless, spread the canard that a “popish plot” was afoot to ensure Van Buren’s election.

During the Polk-Clay race of 1844 the Ithaca, New York, Chronicle [quoted] … one Baron Roorback … [who] had witnessed the purchase of 43 slaves by James K. Polk. The entire story was a hoax. Polk had purchased no slaves; in fact, there was no Baron Roorback. But that didn’t keep the story from gaining wide attention.

During the campaign of 1864, Lincoln was tagged with every filthy name in the political lexicon, from ape to ghoul to traitor. Midway through his first term, his detractors accused his wife of collaborating with Confederates, a charge which compelled the President to appear, uninvited, before a Senate committee which was secretly considering the allegations [and swear to his wife’s innocence.]

In a rather complicated cartoon, Satan lures James Polk toward war with Britain over the Oregon territory.Click image to enlarge.

The campaign of 1884 held the dubious honor of being the dirtiest in American history. … In July, the Buffalo Evening Telegraph … accused Cleveland of fathering an illegitimate son a decade earlier in Buffalo. It turned out that Cleveland, a bachelor, had dated the child’s mother, as had several other men. The boy, therefore, was of questionable parentage. Yet the inherently decent Cleveland had provided for him. A chant soon arose in Republican ranks: “Ma! Ma! Where’s my pa? Gone to the White House, ha! ha! ha!”

Cleveland’s opponent, James G. Blaine … involved in a business scandal. A railroad line had permitted him to sell bonds for a generous commission in return for a land grant. “Burn this letter!” Blaine instructed one cohort in a cover-up attempt. Thus evolved the Democratic comeback to Cleveland’s critics: “Blaine, Blaine, James G. Blaine, the continental liar from the State of Maine.”

Warren Harding… became the subject of a whispering campaign about his ancestry. A great-grandmother, it was alleged, had been a Negro, and a great-grandfather had Negro blood.

The dirty tricks don’t end once the ballots had been cast, either.

Candidate Lincoln, according to Pro-South Democrats, would lead the country straight into insanity.

In the election of 1876, Democrat Samuel Tilden won the popular election but fell one electoral vote shy of a majority. The electoral tallies in several states were counted and recounted, juggled and changed, until finally the election was thrown into the Congress. A Republican Senate and a Democratic House set up an Electoral Commission to decide the winner. Through some political maneuvering that fairly reeked of scandal, Republican Rutherford B. Hayes was declared the victor.

Lyndon Johnson first won his Senate seat in 1948 by an 87-vote margin when 203 previously unnoticed ballots were miraculously discovered several days after the election. The “voters,” curiously, had approached the polls in alphabetical order, and 202 of them had cast their marks beside the Johnson name. This election gave LBJ his nickname of “Landslide Lyndon.”

Dead men not only vote in American elections; occasionally they are candidates. Philadelphia’s Democratic party bosses, for example, ran a dead man in last April’s primary. The cadaverous candidate was Congressman William Barrett, who departed the scene fifteen days before the election. The party hacks kept Barrett’s name on the ballot in the hope that uninformed voters would select him anyway. Thus the bosses could handpick his replacement.Barrett won.


Next: The Big Change in Presidential Campaigns

Destroying and Saving The White House

As a national symbol, the White House doesn’t have quite the popularity of the Statue of Liberty or the US Capitol Building. But if you consider its history, it might be better qualified to symbolize the country than either structure.

For instance, the White House is the only building of our national government to become a casualty in war. In 1814, advancing British troops burned the structure to a shell. The interior was completely rebuilt, and though reconstruction began immediately, the Executive Mansion was uninhabitable for three years.

The White House has also reflected cultural and political changes by assuming the character of each presidency. Its furnishings and function changed continually from the time of its first resident, John Adams, with each leaving its mark. Most presidents added something to the Executive Mansion. Many made changes to the architecture and decor—usually without considering the tastes of their predecessors. As a result, the White House became a patchwork of small projects that ignored the overall structure, which was slowly crumbling.

By the time Truman became president, the decay could no longer be ignored. As the White House Museum describes it, “Floors no longer merely creaked; they swayed. The president’s bathtub was sinking into the floor. A leg of Margaret’s piano broke through the floor in what is today the Private Dining Room. Engineers did a thorough examination and found plaster in a corner of the East Room sagging as much as 18 inches. Wooden beams had been weakened by cutting and drilling for plumbing and wiring over 150 years, and the addition of the steel roof and full third floor in 1927 added weight the building could no longer handle. They declared the whole house to be in imminent danger of collapse.”

Over the next three years, the interior of the White House was removed and completely replaced, and President Truman and his family lived across the street. The result was a sound, durable structure that basically reproduced the original White House. But as a 1962 Post article noted,

all the mellow feeling of the old house gave way to a stark atmosphere of solidity. As one Washington columnist observed, “The White House is safe, all right, but it has completely lost its charm. That restoration took the heart out of the building. When those floors creaked, you knew Lincoln had been walking there before you. Now it has no more appeal than the Pentagon.”

This was the problem that Jacqueline Kennedy faced when she moved into the great mansion almost three years ago… she was shocked by its collection of paintings.  Only a few old portraits had survived the whimsical tastes of incoming families; yet even these, Mrs. Kennedy found, were for the most part badly painted or copied from missing originals. To improve the White House collection—not only portraits but other types of painting as well—she searched for the… the best American painters, and added only a few works by foreign artists.

Her [goal] was to furnish the While House with works of art that earlier Presidents might have liked. To attract some of the best art available, she persuaded Congress to grant the White House “museum status,” under the administration of the National Park System—thus making any donations tax-deductible. [Now]people from all over the country have sent everything from paintings to chamber pots, from wallpaper to silverware.

“Like any President’s wife, I’m here for only a brief time,” she has said. “And before everything slips away, before every link with the past is gone, I want to do this.”

Jackie Kennedy’s project was still in progress in 1962 when she took CBS correspondent Charles Collingwood on a televised tour through the White House. The program, which aired on February 14, gave many Americans their first glimpse inside this national landmark. By careful acquisition, Mrs. Kennedy restored a sense of “executive presence” and historical continuity to the White House.

However, her work shouldn’t overshadow the accomplishment of the Truman reconstruction, for this was an ambitious—even audacious project, as these photos from the Truman Library show:

This reconstruction was fueled America’s faith in the power of restoration. When America saw its Executive Mansion was collapsing, and that limited repairs could no longer save it, its government took drastic action. We dared to clean-out, overhaul, replace, modernize, and reinforce an invaluable piece of American history. We reduced the White House to a shell, confident that we could build a stronger, better version that would carry our past into the future. There are not many buildings that can better symbolize American history.

Why We Still Like Ike

Seven years after leaving the White House, Dwight D. Eisenhower was voted the most admired person in America. Normally the winner of this annual Gallup poll was the sitting president, but in 1968 Lyndon Johnson had become too unpopular because of his Vietnam policy.

Still, it’s remarkable that, of all the notable Americans alive that year, the choice fell to a 78-year old ex-president. Even in retirement, with poor health restricting his public appearances, he was still highly regarded by Americans.

He probably never lost the admiration he earned as Supreme Commander of the Allied armies in World War II. No doubt his decision to run for president as a Republican instead of Democrat cost him some supporters. But while he was the leader of his party, he never became a political president; he would always promote the national good before party interests.

He kept the Republicans’ promise to reduce taxes, balance budgets, and decrease government control over the economy. But he also increased the minimum wage, expanded Social Security, ordered 1,000 U.S. soldiers to Little Rock, Arkansas, to enforce integration, and launched a massive public-spending project: $25 billion to build 40,000 miles of superhighway across the country. (The original 12-year project eventually lengthened to 35 years, and the price rose to $114 billion, and we still think it was a bargain.)

For a time, Eisenhower seemed to antagonize conservative Republicans more than his Democractic opponents, especially when he opposed the grandstanding red-baiter, Senator Joe McCarthy. Yet Eisenhower was an implacable enemy of communist imperialism. He never used accusations and threats, but applied steady pressure against Russia through diplomacy, foreign aid, and occasional military intervention. And when a U.S. spy plane was shot down over Russia, Eisenhower took personal responsibility.

He left office in 1961, ready to enjoy the pleasures of private life. In March of that year, he wrote about the life he saw before him in “Now That I Am A Private Citizen.”

On January twentieth I ended, with mixed feelings of satisfaction and regret, an almost complete half century of public service… the first four years were spent as a cadet in West Point, some thirty-seven as an officer of the Army, and the final eight as commander in chief of the armed forces and President of the United States…

From December, 1941, until the completion of my two terms in the Presidency, there have been few periods in which I have not been confronted with important public problems, for the solution of which I have borne some decree of responsibility.

But now, having left the White House, Mamie and I have become a part of America’s private citizenry. We have no governmental responsibilities, no duties except those belonging to every other individual in this republic. We had often, through the years, looked forward eagerly to this kind of existence…

Adjustments, big and little, began soon after I left the platform last Inauguration Day. I have now learned, once more, how to dial a telephone and how to drive a modern automobile, something I have not done for nearly twenty years…

Ike knew he would miss the daily news briefings he enjoyed as a president. No longer could he simply pick up a phone and call in advisors and experts to inform him breaking news stories. But this, he realized, was how Americans lived. They pieced together news stories. They discussed and debated among themselves. They worked hard to keep informed.

President Eisenhower illustrations by Norman Rockwell
“What a mobile face he has! He registered grave contemplation when told he should be an artist’s model, then cracked it up into a grin.”—Norman Rockwell

I believe that every good citizen owes it to himself and his country to formulate his conclusions on vital national issues as carefully as if he were actually sitting in the President’s chair. He will not find this easy. There is no magic formula for reaching satisfactory decisions; certainly none that would be acceptable to every thoughtful person.

I here set down without explanation or argument, and in terms of basic tenet, the highlights of my political beliefs. These are not original; some are hoary with age. But, among others, they include:

• We live in a society founded upon a deeply felt religious faith dedicated to the maintenance of human liberty and dignity, of the nation’s security, and of public order.

• Only in a world of peace with Justice can the peace and prosperity of any nation be assured.

• Lincoln’s description of the purpose and function of government is still valid. He said, “The legitimate object of government is to do for a community of people whatever they need to have done, but cannot do at all, or cannot so well do for themselves, in their separate and individual capacities. In all that the people can individually do as well for themselves, government ought not to interfere.”

• To insure the nation’s security and progress requires a balanced strength— spiritual, economic, military. To neglect any of these necessarily weakens all.

• An intelligent approach to every political question, domestic or foreign, must seek the enlightened self-interest of this nation.

• A free, competitive economy is essential to the existence of maximum human liberty.

• Maintenance of a sound, stable currency is essential to the growth of a free, competitive economy.

• Deficit spending by the Federal Government is justified only in emergencies of the gravest kind. The inevitable effect is to place an increasing and stifling burden upon the economy and to rob the future of its legitimate heritage.

• The promotion of the overall national good must always take precedence over any attempt of a special group to advantage itself.

• The need for balance in governmental programs is always present—a balance between current pressures and future good: between individual liberty and the meeting of nationwide requirements by government; between creature comforts provided by the state and the maintenance of a national creative capacity depending upon individual initiative, self-confidence and self-dependence; in sum, a balance that repudiates extremes in vast human affairs and seeks practical solutions so as to mobilize the energies of the vast majority.

• Added to these are certain precepts, such as:

—assemble all the facts on a problem, and it often solves itself;

—all generalities are false, including this one;

—make no mistakes in a hurry, but any decision is better than none;

— finally, and probably the most important, always take your job seriously, never yourself.

For me, they spell sound, balanced and progressive government.

These points were more than just nice ideas to Dwight Eisenhower. They were principles by which he lived. Which is why historians may argue Ike’s decision, but few argue his integrity.

The Day Mom Called the White House

It was 1962. We lived in Ohio in a working class neighborhood. Dad was out of work—again. His most recent job as a fund-raiser for a democratic candidate ended after the man running for governor was defeated. The defeat was not a narrow one. And Dad’s unemployment checks were not enough to pay rent and put food on the table for a family of four.

Here sat the O’Malleys on a Sunday morning. My little sister, Annie, was sick with tonsillitis, Mom was mad at Dad—whose name was also Dan—for making inappropriate employment choices, and I was running late for a conscripted appearance in the Pope Pious X boys choir at St. Mary’s Catholic Church, as directed by the very eccentric Sister Marion.

“Dan, Danny’s going to be late for Mass and here you sit, all hung over and no job,” Mom said very sternly to Dad, who liked drinking. “At least you could have the decency to get out of that chair and take the boy to church. It wouldn’t hurt for you to go inside the church either.”

Dad looked at me with a painful squint in his eye, and said out of the corner of his mouth, “Son, why don’t you go to Mass yourself today?”

An eruption of Mount St. Hannah—Mom’s name—quickly occurred.

“Take the boy to church, and you go to Mass, too, and I want to know what the sermon was about—now go!” Mom screamed at the top of her lungs.

Dad never said a word, cross or otherwise, on the way to Mass. Usually, he stood in the back of the church and went outside when the priest gave his sermon. This time I saw him sitting halfway toward the front listening intently as Father Connelly implored the congregation to give more money.

The inviting aroma of Mrs. O’Malley’s usual Sunday dinner of roast beef and mashed potatoes greeted us upon arriving home from church.

“I said five rosaries while you two were gone. Annie’s temperature is down to 99, Dorothy (Mom’s sister) called, and Jack got a promotion, dinner’s almost ready, Danny, you go change your clothes, and Dan “Mr. I Want To Raise Money for the Governor,” you can help me set the table if it wouldn’t be too much trouble,” Mom said in her special way.

Sunday dinners were usually pleasant in our house. This one wasn’t. Between passing the peas, mashed potatoes, and serving delicious homemade apple pie, Mom verbally threw everything but the kitchen sink at Dad. His work habits, drinking habits, personal hygiene, and things I didn’t understand were tossed across the table. Dad, to his credit, kept his steely World War II veteran cool and casually defended himself. I just kept eating through the Hannah and Dan bickering show.

US Marshall Dan O'Malley with his son on Christmas morning. Photo courtesy of Dan O'Malley.
US Marshall Dan O\’Malley with his son on Christmas morning. Photo courtesy of Dan O\’Malley.

Dad had a special way of pushing Mom’s buttons. After dinner, when her 25-minute nonstop rapid-fire tirade came to an end, Dad said coolly, “That was one of the best conversations I’ve never had with you. Dinner wasn’t bad either.” He flipped his napkin on the plate and slowly walked out of the kitchen.

Since my little sister was sick in bed, I helped Mom with the dishes. She mumbled to herself the whole time. Even at the age of 9 I could tell her mental wheels were spinning rapidly.

Dad had his face buried in the Sunday paper as Mom regally entered the living room.

“Dan, you’re going to get a job, and you’re going to get one today,” she said officially.

Dad looked at her over the top of his paper as if he heard something, but wasn’t quite sure of what he heard.

“I’m calling the White House,” she announced.

Our family had a distant connection with the Kennedy administration. My grandmother was a grammar school classmate of President Kennedy’s mother Rose. My grandfather was the local ward boss during the Kennedy for Congress campaign. My father served in World War II with JFK’s family bodyguard, John J. “Mugsy” O’Leary. My mother, along with 150 other women in our neighborhood, had lunch one day with Jackie Kennedy. That’s what I knew about our family Kennedy relationship.

My dad dropped the paper on the floor.

“You’re what?” he said as if he wasn’t hearing properly.

Before he had a chance to utter another word, Mom was on the phone. This was back in the days before direct dial long distance.

“Operator, I’d like you to connect me to the White House in Washington D.C., please,” she said in the sweetest honey coated voice I had ever heard.

My dad had an “I really can’t believe you are doing this to me” look on his face as Mom sat there and smiled a Jack Nicholson “Shining” smile at him while the call was going through.

Hannah O'Malley was a caseworker.
Hannah O\’Malley was a caseworker. Photo courtesy of Dan O\’Malley.

“Hello, White House? Hi, this is Hannah O’Malley calling from the O’Malley’s formerly of Clinton, Massachusetts, how are you? I’d like to see if Mugsy O’Leary is working today,” Mom said to the White House operator as if she’d known her for years.

Dad’s eyes were rolling back in his head. His face was flushed. He was embarrassed beyond belief. Men’s wives don’t usually call the White House to beg favors from old Army buddies or the President of the United States on a Sunday afternoon.

We all sat silent. Mom was on hold with the White House. Cool; I thought. The operator must have told Mom she was going to put her through to someone because she said a very sincere, “thank you, honey”.

“Hello? Well, hello, Mugsy. Yes, this is Hannah. How have you been? We’ve been reading about you. Oh Dan? Dan’s fine, except he’s temporarily out of work. He had applied for a Federal Marshal’s job, but it looks like someone else is going to get it. They told him Friday he was out of the running. They? I guess it was the head Federal Marshal. I don’t know. Here I’ll let Dan tell you all about it”.

Mom thrust the phone at Dad with an all-powerful glance of “don’t screw this up,” as she handed it to him.

“Mugsy!” Dad said with confidence in his embarrassment. “Mugs, we’re doing fine; just a little setback. Well of course I wanted the job, but it’s too late now. They’re going to announce the guy’s appointment tomorrow. Sure; I’ve got time.”

I sat in wonder watching my Dad talk to some guy named Mugsy who worked at the White House for President Kennedy who Mom called after Sunday dinner because she was mad because Dad hadn’t gotten a new job yet.

Dad suddenly looked as if he had been struck by lightning. He sat bolt upright in his chair.

“What?” he exclaimed “Yes, yes, hello to you, Mr. President.”

We all sat straight up. Now my mom looked as if she too had received an electric shock.

“Yes, Mr. President, my mother was Annie O’Malley. Yes, I’m John E’s son. Yes, Jack O’Malley of B.C.’s my older brother. Yes, I was in France and England with Mugsy.

“With all due respect, sir, don’t believe everything Mugsy says about me. Well, Mr. President, basically I applied for the Southern District Federal Marshal’s position and was informed that I’m no longer a candidate. Oh, yes sir, I certainly feel I was the best man for the job. Thank you very much, Mr. President. (pause) Mugsy! What’d you do that to me for? For gawd sakes; the President didn’t need to hear my troubles. Okay. Okay. Yeah. Okay. We’ll hold tight.

“Me too. Thanks.”

With a blank look, Dad got up, walked around Mom, and gently put the phone back on the hook.

We were all silent. Mom was the first to speak.

“Honey, what did they say?” she asked.

“You heard it, I was telling Mugsy about not getting the Marshal’s job. He happened to be in the same room as the president. Mugsy put me on hold and told Mr. Kennedy who I was and where I was from. Next thing I know I’m talking with the man. He remembered Mother going to school with his mom. He said my mom was a childhood friend of hers. He said he also remembered Daddy from his congressional campaign and knew brother Jack from following B.C. football. What a memory! He told me Mugsy often talks about me from our days overseas. Then he asked me what happened and if I thought I was the best man for the job. Then he said, “We think you’re the best man for the job, too.” Mugsy gets back on the phone and then tells me to sit tight and wait for a phone call. Hannah, if this thing comes through, oh baby,” Dad said out of breath.

I jumped up to run out and tell all the kids in the neighborhood that my dad just talked to President Kennedy. Mom had other ideas.

“We’re all going to sit here and pray until someone calls us back,” she said piously.

Dad picked up the paper and buried his face in it. Mom got out the rosary beads. We prayed while Dad read the sports pages.
Several hours later the phone rang. Mom answered it.

“Hello, this is the O’Malley residence. Yes, this is Mrs. O’Malley. Yes, Mr. O’Malley is right here. I’ll get him for you. It was nice talking with you, too,” she said.
Mom handed the phone with a smile on her face to my father. It was the head United States Federal Marshal.

“Oh, hello, Mr. Howard. Fine, sir. I’d be honored to have the position. Yes, sir. I’ll be in your office at 8:30 sharp. Thank you, sir,” Dad said in the most serious and professional manner.

The phone rang again several minutes later. It was Dad’s friend from the White House, Mugsy. He called to ask if Dad was offered the Marshals job and if he accepted it.

The future US Marshal Daniel O'Malley, his wife Hannah and son, Dan Jr. in 1961.
The future US Marshal Daniel O’Malley, his wife Hannah and son, Dan Jr. in 1961. Photo courtesy of Dan O’Malley.

Dad enthusiastically told him he was offered the job. Mugsy told my Dad that the head Marshal had made a mistake and it was Dad who they wanted all along, per the United States Department of Justice. The President had called his brother Bobby at home, Bobby called the Justice Department, the Justice Department called the head of the United States Marshal Service, and the head of the Marshal Service called the Marshal in Ohio to inform him that he had the opportunity to do a favor to his country by appointing one Dan O’Malley to the position of United States Marshal, Southern District.

“Mugsy, how can I thank you for what you did for me?” Dad asked.

“You can’t. You can thank your wife. She’s the one who made the phone call,” he said.

The next day, my dad’s picture appeared on page two of the local paper with the small headline, “Local Man Chosen for U.S. Marshal.” The article went on to mention how Marshal Fred Howard was proud to have found such a champion of justice and war hero to fill the void in that tough territory known as Southern Ohio and Western Pennsylvania.

Marshal Howard was fortunate to have found exactly everything they were looking for in a candidate.

On Sunday, Dad’s broke with no job. On Monday, his picture is in the paper; he’s the new Marshal—all because Mom decided to call the White House. Behind every successful man is often a woman like my mother.

—“Both my parents passed away in 2005, just a few months shy of being wed 57 years,” says author Dan O’Malley, now a successful businessman. “This is my tribute to what would have been their 65th wedding anniversary.”

Norman Rockwell: America’s Favorite Illustrator

In his warm, witty, and utterly candid autobiography, first published in 1960, the beloved artist offered Post readers a glimpse into his life and the often mischievous world around him.

When I was ten years old, a skinny kid with a long neck and narrow shoulders, I wanted to be a weight lifter. So I began a program of exercises to strengthen myself. Every morning I would do pushups, deep knee bends, jumping jacks, and the like before my bedroom mirror. After a month or so, unable to detect any improvement, I gave up. Instead of becoming a weight lifter, I decided to fall back on what seemed to be my only talent — drawing. And here I am, 56 years later, still drawing.

Every so often, usually when I’m having trouble with a picture, I spread on my studio floor reproductions of the 306 Post covers I have painted since 1916, walk around them, and try to decide whether my work has progressed through all those years. If it hasn’t, I say to myself, I’m washed up.

I never seem able to decide whether my work has improved, because my memories keep intruding. Looking at all those covers, I recall their history: the models I used, the trouble I had getting the original idea, how the public reacted. Everything I have ever seen or done has gone into my pictures in one way or another. The story of my life is really the story of my pictures and how I made them.

There was my uncle, Gil Waughlum, for example, a well-to-do elderly gentleman, who in his youth had been something of a scientist and inventor. It was always told with pride in my family that Uncle Gil, in the course of one of his experiments, had flown the great Gil Waughlum kite from a tower on Washington Square in New York. I don’t know what the experiment proved — something to do with Benjamin Franklin and electricity, I believe — but it was important, for in their day Gil Waughlum and the great Gil Waughlum kite were well known.

When I knew him he had given up science. A stout old gentleman with pink cheeks and a bald head, he was always giggling and nudging my brother Jarvis and me to make sure we were properly merry. Whenever I think of him, I’m reminded of Mister Dick, the kindly, gay simpleton who was Betsey Trotwood’s companion in Dickens’ David Copperfield. I don’t mean that Uncle Gil was a simpleton. He wasn’t. But he had one eccentricity — he got holidays mixed up.

On Christmas Day, with snow on the ground, Uncle Gil would bring firecrackers to celebrate the Fourth of July. On Easter he would bring us Christmas gifts; on Thanksgiving, chocolate rabbits. The next year we had firecrackers on my birthday and chocolate rabbits for Christmas. We never knew what to expect. I always wondered where he got firecrackers in December or Christmas cards in April. But I guess the merchants in Yonkers, his hometown, understood his problem.

He always sneaked into the house and hid our gifts — under pillows, behind the couch in the parlor, in dresser drawers — so that we might have the fun of a treasure hunt. I remember him shouting, “Warm. Norman, warm!” as I approached a hidden present, and “Hurrah!” when I found it. In 1936, when I painted a Post cover of a small boy searching the pockets of his grandfather’s overcoat for a gift, I was really painting Uncle Gil.

Of course, I don’t claim to have put on canvas 66 years’ worth of people, places, and events. Rather, I store up things in my mind, and when I need something for a picture—a feeling, a character, a wry smile—there it is. And I draw it out and paint it.

Whenever I want embarrassment, I think of the time I tried, and for several agonizing minutes failed, to lift a 250-pound soprano during a performance at the Metropolitan Opera. For rackety-bang confusion, I recall my early days as an illustrator, when my models were surly dogs, rambunctious children, and a cheerful duck. Whenever I want despair, I remember the time I was swindled out of $10,000. For chagrin I remember my flops — the affair of me and the seven movie stars; the United Nations picture I couldn’t bring off.

And for a mixture of embarrassment, confusion, despair, and chagrin I recall my dinner at the White House. Come to think of it, that dinner embraces vanity, exuberance, fright, and a wonderful, warm personality. It’s too complex to paint; it wouldn’t fit inside a frame.

It all began one sunny day in May 1955, when I received a note from President Eisenhower, inviting me to a stag dinner at the White House. I had painted his portrait in 1952, but I had never expected an invitation to dinner. Overcome with delight and anxiety, I posted my acceptance and hurried to the attic to dig out my tuxedo. As I pulled it from a steamer trunk, a cloud of moths flew up. The sleeves were tattered, the seat ragged, the lapels threadbare. Hastening to a local haberdasher for a replacement, I was shown a midnight blue jacket with lapels dropping in a fat, glittering curve to the waist. I thought it looked cheap.

“You’re sure it’s fashionable?” I asked.

“Oh, yes,” said the clerk, “midnight blue, shawl collar — that’s the latest.” So, in spite of my misgivings, I bought it.

That wasn’t the end of my preparations. I expected to be nervous, even scared, at the dinner. Suppose my mouth dried up and I was unable to speak? What then? I thought. Why, you’ll be ashamed of yourself. (“Hello,” says the President — “Gargle,” say I.)

I visited the office of my friend, Dr. Donald Campbell. Could medical science help me? It could. Doctor Campbell handed me a tranquilizer pill. “Take it 20 minutes before you go to the White House,” he said, “and you won’t be afraid of a thing, Norman. It obliterates apprehension, tension, and dread.”

Armed with my pill (pea green) and my tuxedo (midnight blue) I went to Washington, confident that I was bulwarked against catastrophe. On arriving at my hotel I inquired how long it took to drive to the White House. Then I went to my room and worked out a schedule. At 6:30, exactly one hour before the dinner, I gave my tuxedo to the valet to press. At 7:00 he brought it back. As I fumbled for a tip, I noticed him looking at the tuxedo queerly.

“What’s the matter?” I asked.

“Nothing, sir, nothing,” he said, recovering the blank stare of valets waiting for a tip.

“The tux isn’t fashionable, is it?”

“Well, sir,” said the valet, “I might say that I have never seen that particular shade of blue before.”

When he had left, I stared morosely at my reflection in the shiny lapels of the tuxedo. Patting the pillbox in my coat pocket, I thought, At least you’ve got that; you may look like a fool, but you’ll feel like Grant at Appomattox.

I went into the bathroom, drew a glass of water, and shook the pill out of its box into my hand. It fell on its edge, rolled into the sink, and went down the drain.

“In 15 years,” I said out loud, “I’ll laugh at that.” Stunned, I went into the bedroom, put on my extraordinary tux, tied my tie, and went downstairs.

As I reached the taxi stand outside the hotel, a battered old cab chugged up, clanking and rattling. At the wheel was a stout, middle-aged woman with a chauffeur’s cap cocked over one eye. The doorman waved her away, but I signaled her to stop, feeling that we two, the cab and I, victims of adversity, should stick together.

“The White House,” I said.

“My land!” she exploded heartily. “You going to the White House? Whatta you going to do there?”

“I’m going to dinner,” I said, cheered by this onslaught of good nature.

“Wow!” she exclaimed. “I’ve never taken nobody to the White House before. I’ll get ya there in five minutes flat.” The cab leaped forward with a roar like a wounded rhinoceros.

“Wait!” I said. “I don’t want to be early. We’d better go to the White House and then drive back and forth in front of it until the dot of 7:30.”

“O.K., mister,” she said.

While we were cruising up and down Pennsylvania Avenue she asked, “What’s your name? You famous?”

“I do covers for The Saturday Evening Post,” I said. “My name’s Norman Rockwell.”

“Are you scared?”

“Yes,” I said, studying my watch. “Get ready now. It’s almost time…. Now!”

We turned into the White House gate and jolted to a stop. The guards checked my invitation. Continuing up the drive, we waited while a chauffeur helped a gentleman out of a limousine. A crowd of Secret Service men and other functionaries were standing at the entrance. I paid my fare and started up the steps. “Hey, Mr. Rockwell,” boomed a voice behind me. I turned around. The cab driver was waving at me. “Good luck, Mr. Rockwell!” she shouted. “Good luck!” The Secret Service men laughed. I waved back. “Thanks,” I called.

A secretary ushered me upstairs and into a sitting room. I almost panicked as I crossed the threshold, for all the tuxedoes were black, with dull lapels. A minute later President Eisenhower greeted me warmly, and I felt right at home.

Then the President, raising his voice a trifle, explained to all of us that his stag dinners are informal get-togethers; he hoped we would not talk to the press about the dinner. So I will only say that I had a fine, easy time and enjoyed myself very much.

After leaving the President, as we were standing on the steps of the White House, we sounded like a bunch of kids discussing the high school football hero. A secretary had told us that our evening had lasted one-half hour longer than any of the President’s other informal evenings. We were delighted and flattered, which shows how President Eisenhower affects people. You just can’t help liking him.

I have one dark confession to make. Before each place at the dinner table was a small jackknife, a gift from the President to each guest. There was no inscription on the knife, however, so I went to a jeweler’s in New York the next day and asked to have “From DDE to NR” engraved on the knife. During the next few months, whenever I took out my knife, always being careful to show the inscription, people would say, “DDE? Is that President Eisenhower? Where’d you get that knife?” So I’d get a chance to describe my evening at the White House. Ah, vanity, vanity, thy name is Norman!

I sometimes wonder why I was so nervous at the prospect of dining at the White House. After all, I’m no pink-cheeked innocent. Still, I have a rather simple view of life. To me, a President is an awe-inspiring figure. I can’t be as cool as a clam at the prospect of dining at the White House.

And then I have a mercurial temperament. When that pill rolled down the drain, my spirits followed. The same sort of thing happens with my work. When the art critics call me “cornball” and my work “kitsch,” which I’m told is a derogatory term for popular art, I begin to worry. But I always pick up my brushes and go back to work. For better or for worse, I’ll never be a fine arts painter or a modern artist. I’m an illustrator, which is very different.

The modern artist and the fine arts painter have only to satisfy themselves. The illustrator must satisfy his client as well as himself. He must express a specific idea so that everybody will understand it. He must meet deadlines. The proportions of the picture must always fit the proportions of the magazine.

Ten or fifteen years ago a Bohemian art student — beard, long hair, sandals — kept hanging around a studio I had rented in Provincetown, Massachusetts. One day he interrupted my work on a painting of Johnny Appleseed — an old man with an iron kettle on his head and a burlap sack for a coat, striding across a hilltop, flinging out handfuls of seed.

“Whatta ya do it that way for?” the art student asked.

“What do you mean?”

“Whyn’t ya do it with more feeling?” he said. “Like this.” He pulled some colored chalk out of his pocket and outlined a tall rectangle on a big piece of paper. “Now,” he said, filling in with light-brown chalk a shape like a hawk’s beak, “that’s old Johnny’s body. It was browned by the wind and sun. O.K.?”

I nodded, startled,

“O.K.,” he said, and above the hawk’s beak, which projected from the lower right corner, he divided the rectangle into a red area and a white area, each roughly triangular. “He was kind of a religious fanatic,” he said. “Right?”

I nodded dumbly.

“So the white’s his spirit,” he said, “and the red’s the physical part of him, and they’re contending, the physical and the spiritual.” He rubbed blue chalk over the area below the hawk’s beak — “That’s nature.”— made the base of the rectangle dark brown —“That’s earth.”— and drew a hand casting a seed, the arm coming out of the hawk’s beak.

“But,” I said when he’d finished, “nobody knows it’s Johnny Appleseed. Only you know it’s Johnny Appleseed. Nobody else can tell who it is.”

“So? What difference does it make about anybody else? I know it’s old Johnny. I’m painting it for myself. Who cares about the unwashed masses?”

“Besides,” I said, “your picture won’t fit into the book it’s supposed to appear in. The proportions are wrong. You’ve got it too tall.”

“So make the book tall,” he said.

All of which demonstrates, I think, that a modern artist or fine arts painter doesn’t go at a picture the same way an illustrator does. I believe strongly that a painting should communicate something to large numbers of people. So, according to some critics, my work is old-fashioned, trite, banal. This criticism worries me now and then, especially when a picture I’m trying to finish is going badly, but I’ve learned that I can’t change. I’m not a modern artist and never will be. I don’t see things the way modernists do, even though I enjoy studying their work. I’ve been an illustrator since I was 16 years old. I’m not particularly satisfied with my work — at least I’m always trying to improve it — but I believe in it.

It’s not that painting Post covers is easy. I haven’t been doing it for 43 years just because it was the simplest way to earn a living. It’s been darned difficult at times. Once I couldn’t finish a picture for six months; I almost went under that time. And there is a recurring crisis when I seek Post cover ideas.

During my first years as an illustrator, when I’d sit down in the evening to think up a batch of new ideas I’d feel all washed out, blank, nothing in my head but a low buzzing noise. I’d stare at the wall and doodle. One day, after I’d been aimlessly sketching and crumpling up sheets of paper for hours, I said to myself, This has got to stop; I can’t sit here and muse all day. So I figured out a system and used it for 20 years or so.

When I had run out of ideas, I’d eat a light meal, sharpen 20 pencils, and lay out a dozen pads of paper on the dining room table. Then I’d draw a lamppost (after a while I got to be the best lamppost artist in America). Then I’d draw a drunken sailor leaning on the lamppost. I’d think about the sailor. Did his girl marry someone else while he was at sea? He’s stranded in a foreign port without money? No. I’d think of the sailor patching his clothes on shipboard. That would remind me of a mother darning her little boy’s pants. Well, what did she find in the pocket? A top. A knife handle. A turtle — I’d sketch a turtle slouching slowly along to —

Slowly. That would make me think of a kid going to school. No, it’s been done. How about the kid in school? Of course, he hates school. Gazes out the window at his dog. I’d sketch that. The dog runs after a cat. Cat climbs a tree. Dog ambles about, looking for trouble. Sees an old bum stealing a pie from a kitchen window. Dog latches onto the seat of his pants. I’d sketch that. Bum escapes. Eats the pie. Sheriff collars bum. I’d sketch that. Bum to jail….

I’d keep this up for three or four hours, the rough drawings piling up on the floor. Then, worn out, I’d arrive at the absolute conviction that I was dried up, through, finished. So I’d go to bed, completely discouraged.

The next morning I’d be desperate. After pawing at my breakfast eggs for a few minutes, I’d push them away and drag myself out to the studio. What was I going to do? No ideas. I’d kick my trash bucket and suddenly, as it rolled bumpety-bump across the floor, an idea would come to me like a flash of lightning. I’d given my brain such a beating the night before that it was in a sensitive state. Pretty soon I’d have a Post cover.

Nowadays I don’t think up ideas in exactly the same way, but the process is just as nerve-racking. You’d think that by this time I would have thought up a simple, efficient system, but I haven’t. A good idea for a Post cover is hard to come by. I have to work for it. But a picture is worth any amount of bother. I cling to this belief in spite of the trouble it’s got me into. Further on I’ll tell about how I bought almost all the old clothes in Hannibal, Missouri, because of it. And why I’d be embarrassed if I met Stan Musial, Van Johnson, Loretta Young, or Lassie on the street.

It’s a marvel to me the situations I’ve got into and out of during my life. When I was 15 years old, I taught French and athletics at a private school, though I couldn’t speak a word of French or play a slow game of tiddlywinks. Later on, my life was complicated by impostors who committed practical jokes — even swindles — in my name. Compounding confusion, my name is sometimes mistaken for that of Rockwell Kent, the noted artist, writer, and left wing sympathizer. But all these stories are for later telling. Right now, I guess, I’d better begin at the beginning.

I was born on February 3, 1894, in a shabby brownstone-front house on 103rd Street and Amsterdam Avenue in New York City. My mother was an Anglophile — I wore a black arm band for six weeks after Queen Victoria died — and she named me after Sir Norman Perceval, an English ancestor who reputedly kicked Guy Fawkes down the stairs of the Tower of London after he had tried to blow up the House of Lords. The line from Sir Norman to me is tortuous but unbroken, and my mother insisted that I always sign my name Norman Perceval Rockwell.

“You have a valiant heritage,” she said. “Never allow anyone to intimidate you or make you feel the least bit inferior. There has never been a tradesman in your family. You are descended from artists and gentlemen.”

But I had the notion that Perceval was a sissy name. I darn near died when a boy called me “Mercy Percy”; to my relief, the name didn’t stick. When I left home I dropped the Perceval immediately, despite my mother’s protestations.

Until I was nine or ten years old, my family spent every summer in the country at various farms, which took in boarders. The grown ups played croquet, or sat in high slat-backed rockers on the front porch. We kids were left to do just about anything we wanted. We helped with the milking, fished, swam, trapped birds, cats, turtles, and snakes, smoked corn silk behind the barn, fell off horses and out of lofts — did everything, in fact, that country boys do, except complain about the drudgery and boredom of farm life.

Those summers, as I look back on them now, more than 50 years later, have become a collection of random impressions outside of time, not connected with a specific place or event, and all together forming an image of sheer bliss. I remember throwing off my shoes and socks to wiggle my bare toes in the cool green grass on our first day in the country, then running off gingerly over gravel road and hay stubble for a swim in the river. I remember the hayrides, all the boarders singing as the horses trotted along the dark country lanes; the excitement of eating lunch with the threshing crew at long board tables; hunting bullfrogs with a scrap of red silk tied to the end of a pole; the turtles and frogs we carried back to the city in the fall, snuffling and crying on the train because summer was over.

During the summer I lived an idealized version of the life of a farm boy in the late nineteenth century, and my memories of those days had a lot to do with what I painted later on. Every artist has his own way of looking at life, and this view affects the treatment of his subject matter. Coles Phillips and I used to use the same girl as a model. She was attractive, almost beautiful. In his paintings Coles Phillips made her sexy, sophisticated, and wickedly beautiful. When I painted her, she became a nice, sensible girl, wholesome and rather drab.

This view of life I communicate in my pictures excludes the sordid and ugly. I paint life as I would like it to be. Somebody once said that I paint the kind of girls your mother would want you to marry.

In 1951, for the Thanksgiving issue of the Post, I painted a cover showing an old woman and a small boy saying grace in a shabby railroad restaurant. The people around them were staring, some surprised, some puzzled, some remembering their own childhood; but all were respectful. If you actually saw such a scene, some of the staring people would have been indifferent, some insulting and rude, and perhaps a few would have been angry. But I didn’t see it that way. I just naturally made the people respectful.

Frederic Remington painted the romantic, glamorous aspects of the West — cowboys sitting around a campfire, an attack on a stagecoach. Any old-timer can tell you that life in the wild West was often dull. But Remington, who was born and reared in upstate New York, didn’t find drudgery and boredom out West. In the same way I missed the dullness of farm life. I doubt that I would have idealized the country if I had grown up as a farm boy.

Maybe as I grew up and found that the world wasn’t the perfectly pleasant place I had thought it to be, I unconsciously decided to compensate. So I painted only the ideal aspects of life — pictures in which there were no drunken slatterns or self-centered mothers, in which, on the contrary, foxy grandpas played baseball with the kids and boys got up circuses in the back yard. If there were problems in this created world of mine, they were humorous problems. The people in my pictures aren’t mentally ill or deformed. The situations they get into are commonplace, everyday situations, not the agonizing crises and tangles of life.

The summers I spent in the country as a child became part of this idealized view of life. Of course, country people fit into my kind of picture better than city people. Their faces are more open and expressive, lacking the coldness of city faces. I guess I had a bad case of the American nostalgia for the clean, simple country life, as opposed to the complicated world of a city.

Then, I have other motives for painting as I do. For one thing, I have always wanted everybody to like my work, so I have painted pictures that I knew everyone would understand and like. I could never be satisfied with the approval of the critics; and, boy, I’ve certainly had to be satisfied without it.

Brush With Genius

While critics once dismissed Rockwell as merely an “illustrator,” art historians and collectors alike now celebrate his unique talents. The Post invited some well-known Rockwell collectors to share their thoughts about the artist’s universal appeal.

“Norman Rocwell was brilliant. He captured society’s ambitions and emotions and, more importantly, the cultural fantasy and the ideal of society during that particular time in American history. Through his illustrations, you get a sense of what Americans were thinking during those years, and of what was in their hearts.” — George Lucas

“Norman Rockwell’s work illustrated simple values, the pride of citizenship in the nation, in the community and in the home, and a truly American sense of ‘we’ll get through this’ in troubled times. From today’s point of view, you could claim that Rockwell idealized America and its citizens, but he also gave us images of poignant nostalgia and future promise.” — Steven Spielberg

“I first learned about Norman Rockwell while I was selling The Saturday Evening Post magazines door to door, when I was six years old. I admired his paintings of The Four Freedoms and A Scout Is Reverent. Years later I became interested in, and purchased his paintings of, the Homecoming Military Heroes at the end of World War II.

“My all-time favorite Norman Rockwell painting is Breaking Home Ties. This painting epitomizes the generation I grew up in, where parents made great sacrifices to see that their children were properly educated, by sending them to college.

“I had the privilege of meeting Mr. Rockwell and engaged him to paint a portrait of my son. Unfortunately, he passed away while the painting was still in progress. His staff sent me the unfinished copy of the painting.

“Norman Rockwell’s paintings truly capture the spirit of our country, including the very difficult times of the Depression and World War II.

“Prints and copies of his paintings are in my office, and I have the good fortune of viewing them every day.” — Ross Perot