Presidential Arts

John Quincy Adams played the flute; Thomas Jefferson, the violin.  How many other of our country’s commanders-in-chief had more than a passing interest in fine arts?

Ulysses Grant displayed talent as early as age eighteen, when he painted the landscape below.  Other works show Indians and horses in great detail.
Painting by U. S. Grant

The banjo was Chester Arthur’s instrument of choice, while Calvin Coolidge and Ronald Reagan liked to play the harmonica.  Harry Truman was recorded and shown on the new medium of television:

Dwight D. Eisenhower took up landscape painting, but gave a disclaimer as noted under the picture below. “They would have burned this ____ painting if I wasn’t President of the United States.” 

In addition to being an accordion player, Richard Nixon was accomplished in composing for and playing the piano.  These facts, as well as his breakthrough visit to China, have been obliterated by what happened at the end of his presidency.

Bill Clinton gave a popular performance on his saxophone on the Arsenio Hall show in 1992.

Former presidents Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush have benefited charities with the sale of their paintings.
Self-portrait painting by President George W. Bush. Photo by Grant Miller.

Our current chief executive doesn’t do a bad job singing about his hometown, either.  And while some have admitted they didn’t themselves possess the ability (Edith Roosevelt said dryly, “We play the Victrola”), she and Theodore, as well as John and Jaqueline Kennedy, invited legends to perform for musical soires at the White House.  Pablo Cassals played the cello for both first families sixty years apart.

Gerald Ford said, “The future of our nation depends on providing our children with a complete education that includes music.”   George Washington was first in noting the importance of the Arts and Sciences to “the prosperity of the State and to the ornament of human life…”

Legislators need to take a hint from our leaders, who know firsthand that art and music have been neither optional nor inconsequential for Americans, young and old.


Humor in Rough Rider’s Uniform

“Nobody ever had as good a time as I did as president,” Theodore Roosevelt reflected in 1909.  His serious side, which included negotiating peace between Russia and Japan, breaking apart trusts, and preserving the wilderness for generations of Americans, was balanced with pillow fights and outdoor adventures with his children — and boxing matches and Japanese wrestling with friends in the White House.  He often drew funny cartoons in letters he wrote to his family.

TR loved to tell stories and laugh at them.  He said, “When they call roll in the Senate, the senators don’t know whether to answer, ‘Present,’ or ‘Not guilty.'”  His eldest child was notorious for living it up, to which he responded, “I can be president of the United States or I can control Alice.  I cannot possibly do both.”

Those who served as chief of the executive branch before and after him could let their sense of humor show, too.

George Washington: When a junior officer boasted he could break a spirited horse and was thrown off head over heels, Washington was so “convulsed with laughter tears ran down his cheeks.”  He also wrote in a letter about a duel:  “They say Jones fired at his opponent and cut off a piece of his nose.  How could he miss it?  You know Mr. Livingstone’s nose and what a capitol target it is.”

John Adams: “I have come to the conclusion that one useless man is a shame, two is a law firm and three or more is a congress.”

Abraham Lincoln: “If I were two faced, would I be wearing this one?”  Lincoln’s stories were legendary — it was not always what he said but how he said it.  He was an expert mimic.  During the horrible days of the Civil War he often got relief by listening his two secretaries with knee-slapping laughter.  “Tell it again, John!” he said to young John Hay.

Calvin Coolidge: After a hostess said she’d made a bet she could get more than two words out of him, he replied, “You lose.”  He said in 1929 he didn’t want to run for president again.  There was no chance for advancement.

Franklin Roosevelt: “Twenty-two minutes,” he said, when asked what the next Fireside Chat was to be about.

 Harry Truman: “If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.”

Lyndon Johnson made some famous analogies but that doesn’t mean they should be repeated.

Jimmy Carter: “It’s nice now that when people wave at me, they use all their fingers.”

Ronald Reagan, a natural storyteller, was the only president with a prior career in entertainment.  He poked fun at himself: “Just to show you how youthful I am, I intend to campaign in all thirteen states.”   When horseback riding with Queen Elizabeth, her mount passed a substantial amount of gas.  She apologized: “I’m sorry.”  Reagan shot back, “Why, Your Majesty,  I thought it was the horse.”

George W. Bush: “These stories about my intellectual capacity really get under my skin.  For awhile, I even thought my staff believed it.  There on my schedule first thing every morning it said, “Intelligence Briefing.”

Barack Obama: At an observance of International Woman’s Day he said, “I salute heroic women from those on the Mayflower to the one I’m blessed to call my wife, who looked across the dinner table and thought, ‘I’m smarter than that guy.'”

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