Richard Nixon: Remembering the Death of an Ex-PresidentBenjamin Shapell
The presidential story of 1994 might well have been one that ignored Bill Clinton. The Republican November sweep was certainly the political event of the year. But the Spring of 1994 witnessed the passing of the last familial combatants from the famous 1960 presidential race-reunited pairs, if you will – when Jackie joined her late husband John, and Richard Nixon joined Pat. It was a year in which America observed the 20th anniversary of Watergate. And it was also a year in which America experienced something which most Americans couldn't recall – the first death in over 20 years of an American President.
Richard Nixon, on the one hand, at ease and fiercely dedicated to his family throughout his lifetime was, on the other hand, a man who seemed uncomfortable in public life even after attaining the Presidency of the United States. He was, writes Nixon biographer Stephen Ambrose, highly knowledgeable and disciplined but also inherently suspicious and incapable of trusting others. Beneath the surface there was always a simmering anger whose sources can only be guessed at. "He was," writes Ambrose, "the angriest American President."
Withdrawing to public life after his resignation, Nixon devoted himself to giving a personal, if defensive, account of his Presidency. He wrote many books, traveled widely, and became, to many, a behind-the-scenes guru to Republican and Democratic Presidents alike. Interestingly, one of Nixon's last political predictions was that California Governor Pete Wilson, if he survived his reelection effort in November, would be nominated for President in 1996. One down, but the latter remains to be seen.
Nixon will be remembered for many things – his "Checkers" speech, his trips to China, Kent State, and his fierce opposition to anti-war agitators – but he will be recalled first and foremost for the Watergate scandal, an event which occurred 20 years ago and still remains seared in the conscience of those old enough to remember it.
Nixon's passing one year ago also brought to mind some interesting presidential trivia. The 21 years between the deaths of Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon represent the longest period without a President dying in America in more than 160 years. The only longer duration was the period between the deaths of George Washington (1799) and John Adams and Thomas Jefferson (both on July 4, 1826). It also marked the end of a streak in which there were five ex-Presidents alive, a short streak which commenced with Clinton's inauguration on January 20, 1993, and ended with Nixon's death on April 22, 1994. It was, though, a period of 15 months which excited the public, perhaps hoping that all five Ex's and current President (making six) could somehow be brought together. It would be a chance to supersede the exciting events of November 5, 1991, when four ex-Presidents and President Bush participated in the opening of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.
But, alas, there would be no suitable occasion to make that happen. On the lighter side, it brought an end to an old joke told in 1992 by a volunteer guide at the Reagan Library: "Did you know that we have five Presidents who are not buried on American soil?", he asked. As several visitors stared in astonishment, the guide hit his punch line: "Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan and Bush."
Was that 15 month window the first time we've had five living Ex-Presidents and one incumbent? Not quite. But it was only the second time in U.S. history that five former Presidents of the United States were alive. The first time was during the first term of President Abraham Lincoln, a streak which lasted only 10 months starting from March 4, 1861 until January 18, 1862, when John Tyler died. The other former Presidents included Martin Van Buren, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, and James Buchanan.
Ironically, when Richard Nixon was going through his Watergate crisis (a time when counsel with former Presidents might have been desired by the incumbent), there were no former U.S. Presidents alive (from LBJ's death on January 22, 1973, to Nixon's resignation on August 9, 1974). Lincoln, surrounded by ex-Presidents, certainly got advice, whether he appreciated it or not, considering that ex-Presidents, even today, seem to have trouble agreeing on anything.
But there was no difference of opinions at the outbreak of the Civil War when, four days after the attack on Fort Sumter, ex-President Franklin Pierce (who many felt was largely responsible for this war, including Lincoln himself) wrote to ex-President Van Buren, suggesting that he call a meeting of the five living ex-Presidents to consider how the Civil War might be averted.
"The present unparalleled crisis in the affairs of our country is, I have no doubt, filling you, as it is me, with the profoundest sorrow…If the five retired Presidents of the United States, still living, were to meet at the earliest practicable day at the city where the Constitution was formed, might not their consultation…reach the Administration and the country with some degree of power?...Whatever the result may be, can we permit our remaining days or years to be disturbed by the consciousness that, after having been honored by the confidence of the Republic, we have passively seen it drift to destruction…Should this suggestion commend itself to your judgment, will you communicate with Mr. Tyler, Mr. Fillmore and Mr. Buchanan, and advise me of the results."
Obviously, the five ex-Presidents weren't successful in maintaining the peace. Perhaps Lincoln viewed it as fruitless interference. Considering Lincoln's chilly relations with former Presidents prior to and during his Presidency, perhaps the project was doomed from the start.
Tyler had already, two months before, attempted a settlement, having presided at a peace conference attended by 22 states which met in secret session at Washington D.C. Tyler met with President Buchanan whom he found to be "in a bad psychological and emotional state, hoping only to complete his term and get out of Washington before the first shots were fired." His rooms at the Brown's Hotel were filled with frightened people looking to the ex-President to save the Union. But by February 15th, the convention was hopelessly deadlocked. He met President-elect Lincoln on February 23rd. But all efforts failed, and by the end of the month Tyler denounced the peace convention and called for Virginia's secession from the Union. In late 1861 he was elected to the Confederate Congress (so much for peace!) and died, as did Van Buren, in 1862. Fillmore and Pierce went on to become rabid anti-Lincoln dissenters and died virtually ignored. The bitterness of war had spared no one: "Brother-against-brother" was soon echoed by "President-against-President."
Originally published in INSIDER'S REPORT, March, 1995.
Dwight D. Eisenhower and the Rarity of His Presidential LettersBenjamin Shapell
Since our analysis in 1992 ranking the top 10 rarest Presidents in handwritten letters as President, existing in private hands, we have subsequently attempted individual analyses in greater depth for each of those 10 Presidents. Expanding the search for letters in both the private and public sectors, we have, so far, noticed important changes affecting the ranking of many of those Presidents on our original 1992 survey. Our current subject, Dwight D. Eisenhower – ranked third in 1992 – is no exception.
Before we proceed with our 34th President, a quick summary of past findings is in order. As many of you remember, our first in depth study of the top 10 Presidents was devoted to the number one ranked President: Andrew Johnson. Our study concluded that he still remains the rarest of all the Presidents (both nineteenth and twentieth century) in the top-ranked position. In quick follow-ups written up in two subsequent issues of "Insider's Report," his ranking remained at number one, no new examples having been discovered in the ongoing review of his presidential papers.
For our next presidential rarity subject we chose a twentieth century president – Herbert Hoover – who was ranked at number eight in the 1992 rankings. Remember that oftentimes after a President leaves office, the discovery or sale of his Presidential correspondence is a likely possibility. At the time of our study, Hoover had been out of office for over 60 years (versus 125 years for Andrew Johnson), yet we concluded that not only was his number eight ranking secure but, because of Hoover's almost peculiar, premeditated intent to deliberately limit his handwritten correspondence, that he would most certainly experience a dramatic move up at the time of our next official rankings of the top 10 rarest Presidents.
In the case of James Garfield (ranked number seven in 1992), however, we discovered something quite interesting. Whereas our recent discoveries in the public sector of handwritten letters as President of Andrew Johnson and Herbert Hoover have strengthened their overall rankings in terms of rarity, the results of our recent study of Garfield presidential ALS's ("autograph letter signed") have removed him to a more common position. Indeed, with a surprising total of no less than 25 ALS's accounted for, he most likely will show a dramatic drop in the top 10, if not beyond.
We thought it ironic that Hoover, a full-term, twentieth century President, so far outranked the President who served the second shortest term in U.S. history. But having plunged quite deeply into analyzing presidential writing habits, trends and total output, we concluded that the length of a President's term had no bearing on the ultimate number of handwritten letters a President would write while in office. (If that were the case, we argued, then William Henry Harrison would certainly be one of the more "common" Presidents in handwritten letters as President since he wrote four or five examples in only 32 days in office!) That conclusion was evident in our 1992 survey when we placed Garfield and his 199 days in office in the number seven position, and Franklin Roosevelt (with his almost four full terms and 4,000-plus days in office) in the number six spot.
By delving into the holdings and archives of public institutions, we also concluded in the Hoover piece that two Presidents in the top five positions of our 1992 study would, today, most likely be reduced in rarity and ranking. We wrote: "Gerald Ford (ranked number two in our 1992 study) will most likely drop in the wake of several new discoveries of ALS's as President were located at the LBJ Library in Texas."
Which brings us to our number three ranked President, Dwight Eisenhower. We wondered if we would also witness a drop in his 1992 ranking due to several reasons: 1) Our combing through the Eisenhower presidential papers in the public domain; 2) Eisenhower being a twentieth century President who served 25 years later than our other twentieth century study, Herbert Hoover; 3) Eisenhower was a two-term president, serving the second longest (along with nine other two-termers) after Franklin Roosevelt's 12 years.
Like Ford and Johnson, Eisenhower is considered a "recent" Chief Executive, even though he left office over thirty years ago. Since then, there certainly would have been time for new discoveries of handwritten correspondence to be made. However, Eisenhower was one of our oldest chief executives, with similarly aged cabinet members and other officials who would likely have been recipients of such personal letters. Given the fact that most of these people have died by now, it is quite probable that any such letters would have somehow surfaced.
Initially, while compiling our 1992 rankings of handwritten letters limited to just the private sector, we wrote that Eisenhower's long period as President, as well as his voluminous handwritten correspondence with his wife Mamie while serving as Supreme Allied Commander during the Second World War, would certainly scuttle any high hopes for Eisenhower even appearing on our list. However, there was some surprise when we found only one bona-fide handwritten example as President through the auction records starting from 1953 to the present. (We are not aware of any presidential ALS ever changing hands privately between dealers or collectors.) This letter was auctioned in a group lot at Sothebys in 1983. It wasn't written on the traditional pale green White House stationery so well known to collectors. Instead, it was written on cream-colored, quarto, stationery embossed with the initials "DDE" and "The White House," and signed in full. Dated June 29, 1954, this letter, had it been typed instead of handwritten, would have long been ignored.
Written at the request of Warnick J. Kernan, President of the Board of Trustees of the Utica Public Library in New York, Eisenhower sends his "greetings and best wishes to the Board of Trustees of the Utica Public Library and to all the visitors of your fine institution." Why he chose to "honor" this institution with one of only four known ALS's as President written over the course of two terms in office is simply a mystery.
Ironically, the other three Presidents included in this group lot (FDR, Truman and Nixon) are also rare in handwritten letters as President. Predictably, they each sent a typed letter to Mr. Kernan of the Utica Library.
But Eisenhower, rarer in handwritten letters than anyone of them, sent an ALS! We don't know of any personal attachment Eisenhower might have had with the institution, and the fact that many other Presidents were solicited for a presidential letter makes it unlikely that Eisenhower viewed this as nothing more than a courtesy. (You might remember that, in our study of the handwritten letters of Herbert Hoover, one of his few handwritten letters as President was, likewise, written to Mr. Kernan.) No doubt the Utica Library had its sights on handwritten letters and probably stated so at the time of its request. They certainly lucked out with Hoover and Eisenhower!
Our criteria for what constitutes a legitimate ALS as President in the most optimal sense is met by Eisenhower's letter to Kernan. (Dated on White House stationery or, failing that, plain stationery with a presidential date, salutation, and signed in full.) We usually will count a handwritten letter signed with initials or a nickname when it is apparent that the President clearly intended to write an ALS of some length. But that might only be applied to a President where a dearth of handwritten letters exist and not for many of the more common Chief Executives.
If we choose to go with the more strict definition where a presidential handwritten letter signed in full is a must, then we encounter very few indeed. Charles Hamilton, both in 1985 and in his 1990 follow-up, ranked Eisenhower as second only to Andrew Johnson, and added that he had never encountered an ALS a President. While acknowledging that there are quite a few typed letters of Eisenhower with holograph postscripts around, he ruled out letters signed with nicknames or initials. With Eisenhower, he speaks only of full handwritten letters signed "Dwight D. Eisenhower," and not "D.E.," or " D.D.E.," or "Ike," or "Dad."
Mention should also be made of an Autograph Draft Telegram which sold at auction in 1986. Though interpreted by way of its content as having been written on June 14, 1953, the one-page example was written on ruled legal paper with no salutation. Despite being signed in full, it still falls outside our requirements of what constitutes a legitimate handwritten example as President.
In the public sector, however, only two were found at the Dwight Eisenhower Library in Texas. All of Eisenhower's private files, which are closed to the public, were checked. Also, the papers of Eisenhower's closest associates and friends were checked (including John Foster Dulles). No ALS's were found in either case. Also, of the few ALS's written to his brother Milton before and after the presidency, no other handwritten letters were known to have been written as President.
The first example that was found was a three-page letter on White House stationery, undated on the letter itself, but carrying a postmark of February 25, 1954, on the envelope. It was written to his brother Milton Eisenhower's wife, Helen. It was a pep talk delivered in the form of a letter, when Helen Eisenhower was in the hospital undergoing X-ray treatments. He then related to her a story about the power of the X-ray: "It is astonishing what X-ray can do. I had a bursitis 4 or 5 years ago that was on the way to immobilizing my shoulder completely. The doctors shook their heads about an operation – and thought that so much additional bone had formed in my shoulder that X-ray treatment would be useless… They completely destroyed the new bones (which they said were heavier and denser than the surrounding natural ones) and did not injure the rest of the joint." He goes on to advise her to listen to the doctors.
The second letter, also written to Helen Eisenhower, is evidently of presidential date. It is one page and dated on the verso in another hand (perhaps by Milton Eisenhower), "August 1953." However, unlike the above letter to Helen, it is written on Hallmark note paper with little elephants, something which Eisenhower addresses in the opening paragraph: "Let it never be said that this stationery is of my choosing, but a diligent search of Mamie's desk reveals no other. So after this note has served its purpose of bringing to you a 'happy birthday' from me – please file carefully in the waste basket! We are all delighted to hear from Milton that you continue to improve – so we hope your anniversary is a joyous one. All the best – to you and to the children."
There is no doubt that President Eisenhower intended to write a full page handwritten letter – not just a note. He had something he wanted to say, and that meant writing it on anything that was available. He could have written on just the bottom flap of the card, which is usually done. Instead he opened it up vertically and wrote from top to bottom.
"Dating" an undated letter can be an interesting and innovative research task. In this case, the reasons that we believe the one-page letter is of presidential date (if we ignore for now the scribbled date on its verso) is because it, like the February 25, 1954, ALS written as president, also relates to the health of Helen Eisenhower. This, and the three page "X-ray" letter to Helen, appear to have been written close to one another with the "Happy Birthday" letter written first. This order is based on the opening line in the one-page example, when Eisenhower writes that "Milton tells me that you are again in the doctor's clutches." A more convincing point would be the fact that Helen died of a blood clot on July 10, 1954, at the age of 49, just one and one half years into Eisenhower's first term. Also, Eisenhower's reference to her birthday helps date the letter to having been written no later than August 1953, since she died prior to her August birthday in 1954.
We also see a side of Eisenhower's personal side in the content of both letters and in the way he expressed himself. Helen Eisenhower had clearly been in poor health and her brother-in-law didn't forget her. Perhaps the extent to which he cared is measured by the fact that he assumed the rare task of taking pen to paper (and in her case any paper that was available).
The extent of the scarcity of Eisenhower's handwritten letters was brought home to us when the Eisenhower Library could produce only two examples. (But according to the stricter definition, they would not qualify because both were signed "Ike." Still it is obvious that Eisenhower clearly intended to write them as longhand letters, especially the three handwritten pages on White House stationery). If they, of all places, had only two, then what would be the likelihood that there could be additional ones in other public repositories? Amazingly, and only by sheer accident, did we discover another – only the second ALS as President signed in full. In that case it came from the Richard Nixon Library in California. Dated December 14, 1953, this two-page handwritten letter was written to Eisenhower's Vice-President Richard Nixon following his ten week, 45,000 –mile Asian goodwill tour. In a report about his trip, Nixon reported to Eisenhower that his foreign policy program had put the Communists "for the first time…on the defensive all over the world."
In his letter, Eisenhower expressed his admiration for the Vice-President: "Proud as I am of the record you and Pat established in your recent visit to a number of Asian countries, yet I must say I'm glad to have you home. We, by which I mean all the principal figures in the Administration, have missed your wise counsel, your energetic support and your exemplary dedication to the service of the country…"
What then, is Eisenhower's holographic legacy? Well, without a doubt, he replaces Gerald Ford, termed the rarest twentieth century president in our 1992 rankings, in the number two position. (A future article on Ford will, as mentioned on page 23, show a rather large and surprising correspondence.) Eisenhower will inherit that position, hands down.
In comparing Eisenhower and Hoover a bit further, there is no doubt that many similarities exist between the writing habits of these two Presidents. In both cases each was obsessively selective and restrictive in deciding when to take ink to paper and to whom. Interestingly family members, the press, elites and others seemed to be completely ignored by the Presidential pen. Hoover had his once-per-annum quota (which skewed just a bit) when he wrote to one or two lucky citizens. But in Eisenhower's case the pattern was unpredictable, with the President favoring, it would seem, only special situations.
Are there other reasons which might explain the scarcity of Eisenhower ALS's as President? You might remember in our study of Andrew Johnson that his right arm had been badly crushed in a serious rail accident in 1857, thus accounting for the rarity of Johnson's handwritten letters (as well as Johnson's preference for pencil when he felt the need to write notes in his own hand). In Eisenhower's case, perhaps there was also a medical reason to explain his scarcity. On a recent trip to Seattle, someone brought to my attention that Eisenhower had a problem that prevented him from writing ALS's during the middle and end of his presidency. This seems interesting when you notice the dates of the four handwritten letters mentioned here. All were written within one year of each other and only during the first year and a half of his presidency: August, 1953; December 14, 1953; February 25, 1954; and June 29, 1954.
Whether a medical problem explains why there are no ALS's as President for the next six and one half years is speculation at this point, but something certainly worth following up on.
There are, therefore two ALS's of Eisenhower by strict definition; four if you count (which we do) both the three-page letter on White House stationery signed "Ike" and the Hallmark note paper signed "Ike," thus making three out of four written on some form of White House stationery. The Autograph Draft Telegram (mentioned previously herein) on plain paper, undated (but interpreted as June 14, 1953), which sold at Sothebys in 1986, would not qualify under our guidelines despite its uniqueness and rarity.
Originally published in INSIDER'S REPORT, March, 1995.
Profit Before Culture: Should History be Sold to the Highest Bidder?Benjamin Shapell
The Public's Right to Own Original Historical Letters: "There is a desire of property in the sanest and best men, which Nature seems to have implanted as conservative of her works, and which is necessary to encourage and keep alive the arts." -Walter Savage Landor. In the field of collecting autograph letters, there are two questions that dealers are always asked. "How do you know if a document is real," is one query, and "Can the public own historical documents," is the other. Space doesn't allow us to answer both of these important questions in this edition of "Insider's Report," so we must leave it for another time to explain the different steps we take to authenticate a document. In this edition of our newsletter, we will tackle the second question – private vs. public ownership of historical documents.
Not too long ago, NBC Nightly News ran a segment on historical documents, voicing their concern that many documents which are important to American history are becoming mere wall hangings in homes across the country. NBC pointed out that "Items once found only in public places are routinely ending up in personal collections where history is for sale [to the highest bidder]. Whose history is it," they exclaimed.
Ken Burns, the historian and producer behind the widely acclaimed 1990 documentary classic on the Civil War and the recently shown documentary on the history of baseball, was interviewed during the NBC segment and spoke rather passionately when he said, "I'd rather see these things [historical documents] in public institutions and us more concerned about the currency of ideas than the value of a signature."
This report from NBC raises the fundamental question which each of us who collect historical documents has to answer for himself. Given that private individuals can both legally and practically own historical letters, the basic philosophical point is simply this – Should our history, the people's history, be sold to private individuals, or should history stay strictly within the public domain for all of us to see?
For collectors who are new to our world and indeed new to this debate, and for any American who is genuinely concerned abut the historical legacies of this country, it is important to discuss this moral point openly. We are confident that in the end, most people will agree with us that private ownership of historical documents is not only a good choice for our society to make, but a vital choice for the preservation of these priceless treasures.
There are a lot of points one can make to back up Burns, the most important and obvious being that public institutions are clearly the best outlets for people to view historical documents. Museums and libraries are accessible to lots of people, and scholars can have easy access to their collections. Important private collections are also made available to scholars and for public viewing from time to time. Certainly, nobody thinks that private collectors are going to be selling tickets for people or historians to come to their houses or go to their bank vaults to view their holdings.
Plus, there are some treasures in the world which just can't be placed anywhere else but in museums. Surely the Mona Lisa was once owned privately, but its importance and stature is now so great that the thought of it in private hands is unthinkable. Likewise with the Gettysburg Address. The original drafts given to Lincoln's private secretaries, Nicolay and Hay, do belong in the Library of Congress because they are some of only a few documents which still guide us as a nation. Clearly the Declaration of Independence, the original Constitution, and certain other state or federal documents belong in that special class of documents as well. No one is arguing that these vital pieces of our historical legacy should be anything but public property.
But while it is altruistic to think that our entire historical legacy should be preserved in public institutions for anyone to see whenever he or she wants, like so many things in life, the reality of that solution is far too impractical. Vincent van Gogh and Claude Monet didn't take their paintings off their easels and drop them off at the local museum. They sold their art works to private individuals in order to make a living. No museum was going to feed them or put a roof over their heads. In effect, the moral debate of private ownership applies as much to letters and manuscripts as it does to great paintings. Echoing NBC's lament of documents becoming wall hangings in homes across the country, should the treasures of the Impressionists and other great artists likewise be hanging in the living rooms of celebrities across the country? The truth of the matter is that great Picasso's are as "locked away" in private collections as are great letters of Lincoln.
And that's quite understandable. Abraham Lincoln wrote many hundreds of letters to private individuals and fellow citizens. What were those people supposed to do with those letters? Read them and then mail them right in to the Smithsonian? Of course those people saved them and then passed them down to their next of kin. If the next generations chose to sell those documents for financial or other reasons, who can rightfully argue that those people must donate them to a museum instead? Maybe some of us would have chosen to hold on to those Lincoln letters if we owned them, or perhaps even donated them to a museum as Burns would like, but are any of us comfortable with forcing someone who needs money to donate a Lincoln letter to a public institution in exchange for a tax deduction?
LETTERS WHICH TOUCH THE HEART
These are clearly personal matters. Abraham Lincoln's famous 1860 letter to eleven-year old Grace Bedell, in response to her request to him to grow a beard so the ladies might be more inclined to vote for him, belonged to Grace Bedell. In 1966, her heirs made the decision to sell it at auction. It eventually became the property of at least two more private collectors.
Where exactly, then, in this process should the letter have been turned over to the Smithsonian Institution? And how about letters more routine in nature but still historically important, especially the numerous wartime correspondences between President Lincoln and President Grant and others? Which of these letters are so historically significant that they could not be owned by private individuals? Which letters would "qualify" for private ownership? And who would be the individual making that judgment call? These kinds of arguments can go on and on.
In short, where Burns and other historians may have their hearts in the right places, they have not stated a practical solution for keeping all historical letters and documents in the public domain. Take another case in point – the Kent State letters. Richard Nixon wrote four condolence letters to the families of the four students who were killed at Kent State in 1970. We can't condemn the three out of the four families who decided to sell those letters rather than donate them to museums. Who are any of us to judge what small compensation these people received for a dead son or daughter? And it is hard to imagine Mr. Burns showing up at these people's doorsteps with hand outstretched demanding that they give him their private letters for the public good.
There are many examples of Presidential letters which carry the same emotional power for private individuals as the Kent State letters. On November 21, 1864, President Lincoln wrote to the widow Bixby expressing his condolences to this mother who had lost five sons for the Union cause. This letter is one of the most admired of all Lincoln documents. Historians James G. Randall and Richard N. Current declared that the Bixby letter "stands with the Gettysburg Address as a masterpiece in the English language." Henry Watterson raved that it is "the most sublime letter ever penned by the hand of man. Unfortunately, no one knows where the original Bixby letter is. But if the original does surface in private hands, and its provenance (generational pedigree) proves reliable, it would legally be part of the private domain.
Lincoln's eloquent letter to Fanny McCullough is another historic letter in private hands. Written on December 23, 1862, to the daughter of one of Lincoln's closest friends who fell in battle, this letter is acknowledged to be one of the greatest letters of condolence ever written. It was eventually sold privately in 1968 for a then record price of $60,000.
Like Bedell, the McCullough and Kent State letters were the private property of a particular family or an individual fortunate enough (or in some cases unfortunate enough) to own them. What right does anyone have to take that letter away from an individual?
FAIR COPIES AND LIMITED EDITIONS
Just to show you how complicated Ken Burns' solution would be in practice, consider the issue of "fair copies." Fair copies are the same original words and thoughts of a letter or document which are written down for private individuals at a later date. One striking example would be the concluding paragraph from Lincoln's Second Inaugural address – "With Malice Towards None" previewed in past issues of "Insiders Report." Lincoln wrote out and signed this famous quotation inside a fancy autograph album at the request of a prominent Washington family some time after the March 4, 1865, inauguration.
But let's return to the Gettysburg Address once again. As we stated before, the originals are in the public domain. But there are five other known copies of the speech, copies which Lincoln wrote out at a later date for some friends to keep as souvenirs. Lincoln was also open to the concept of souvenir copies when it came to the Emancipation Proclamation. Whereas the original is in the National Archives, Lincoln also signed 48 souvenir copies of the Proclamation, which were to be sold in order to raise money for wounded Union soldiers at the Philadelphia Sanitary Fair, which ran from June 7 - 29, 1864.
A different kind of "fair copy" would be a personally signed item which had a limited run – for example, the publication, in book form, of the Lincoln-Douglas Debates, the most famous and most important series of debates in American political history. Published in 1858 to bolster Lincoln's campaign for the Illinois Senate, they helped to galvanize sectional attitudes towards slavery three years before the outbreak of the war. Though he lost, the debates catapulted Lincoln towards the 1860 Republican presidential nomination.
Lincoln was presented with 100 copies by the publisher to do with as he pleased. He inscribed a number of them to friends and acquaintances, of which approximately one-fourth are accounted for. One recognized Lincoln scholar has stated that the publication of these Debates remains the closest we will ever come to a book actually written by Lincoln. And yet, while many are housed in institutions, many remain in the hands of private collectors.
Certainly Mr. Burns wouldn't suggest that every copy of these historical documents and books belongs in public institutions, especially when the original intent of composing them was either to present them to private individuals or to raise money for the government by means of sale to private citizens. Short of the original documents which were meant for the people, all letters and documents meant for individuals should remain in private hands.
Questions of practicality aside, let's discuss the moral implications in the debate about private or public ownership of historical documents. After all, none of us want to be a part of a business which is immoral, no matter how practical it is in the real world.
FAMOUS COLLECTORS – Presidential and Otherwise
The ethical point of view for public ownership of historical documents was most eloquently stated by Christopher Knight, the Art Critic for "The Los Angeles Times," when Microsoft's Bill Gates bought the Codex Hammer, Leonardo da Vinci's 72-page scientific manuscript containing notes and drawings on hydrodynamics, at a Christie's auction for $30.8 million (See page 33 for related story). Knight was horrified that the Hammer Museum would sell off such a historically important document as Leonardo da Vinci's scientific notebook to a private collector. He argued that the Codex belonged in a museum because, "In a museum collection, an artifact is common patrimony – source of communal inspiration, pride and intellectual sustenance. In a private collection, all bets are off. A private collector can decide to lock the object in a vault, display it in his living room for the private pleasure of select friends, keep it sequestered from scholars, or turn it into an advertising shill for the benefit of his corporation." But immediately after its purchase, Mr. Gates went on to state that the Codex would be on loan at least half the time to museums.
This argument which Knight and Burns and other historians make for public over private ownership of historical documents is heartfelt. But ultimately, it is logically supported by two basic assumptions. The first one is that private collectors are not good custodians of historical treasures. The second is simply that public institutions are good custodians of historical treasures. We feel that both of these assumptions are not necessarily the correct ones. Those who present the view that private collectors are not good custodians of historical treasures are actually saying that these collectors won't take care of an artifact properly, nor will they display it openly for the public to enjoy. Obviously, we don't agree with these points.
First of all, let's face reality. In these times of limited resources, public institutions like the Library of Congress, museums, and universities just don't have the money to buy a lot of the historical letters and other documents which are floating around the marketplace. Certainly, we as a nation don't want to give dictatorial powers to our government and museums to just take historical documents from people. And it is probably not a realistic view to believe that, with the huge deficit Washington is carrying and the budget cuts state and local municipalities are wrestling with, any branch of our government is going to come up with the cash they would need to buy these documents. So clearly there is a place in the world for private collectors with money, and that is to buy the letters and the works of art that the government and other public institutions can't afford.
Besides, public places were never the sole repositories of autograph material in the first place. Take Thomas Jefferson, who is ironically the subject of an upcoming Ken Burns production. He was very specific about where he came down on the private vs. public ownership of historical documents. He said, "It is the duty of every good citizen to use all the opportunities which occur to him for preserving documents relating to the history of our country."
In fact, two other of America's most popular Presidents agreed with our third Chief Executive. One hundred years after Jefferson, FDR was putting Jefferson's words into action. Writing as Governor of New York, FDR said, "The value of autographic writing lies not in the mere signature but in the value and historical significance of what is said by the writer." As early as 1915, while serving as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Roosevelt was busy buying letters for his collection.
President John F. Kennedy was also an avid collector. Over the years he accumulated a fine collection of U.S. Presidents' autographs. The idea that historical letters somehow belonged only in museums hardly deterred FDR or John Kennedy from buying them outright. Actually, these men, whose own letters would be fiercely sought and traded, disagreed with that entire concept. The irony of it all, of course, is that the collections of Roosevelt and Kennedy did end up in public institutions anyway – namely in their own presidential libraries! Jefferson eventually donated his collection of historically significant books and documents to the University of Virginia.
Some private individuals may not have a Presidential library or museum built in their honor, but they are wealthy enough to build museums which carry their names themselves. Besides amassing a huge private art collection which he donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, banker-financier J. Pierpont Morgan opened one of the most well-respected libraries in the world. Philanthropist Henry Huntington also set up a world renowned library in California which, along with the Morgan, recently wrapped up two of the most historically significant exhibitions ever attempted on Lincoln, slavery and the Civil War.
Both Morgan and Huntington started out as collectors by simply opening their checkbooks. Three other individuals who proved to have some extra money in the bank were Dr. Albert Barnes, J. Paul Getty and Norton Simon. They started out by going to museums and ended up building one, all the while accumulating important art which would eventually fill those museum walls. And the world is truly a richer place because these men built these monuments to art and history. Upon Norton Simon's death, an obituary which appeared in "The Los Angeles Times" on June 5, 1993, had the following to say about this private collector's contribution. "Southern California is the richer for the rare marriage of means and taste that this latecomer used to build an art collection scarcely equaled west of the Mississippi… Norton Simon was more than just a wealthy aesthete. He did not open his collection to the public only after his death. He saw it as a public service from the beginning."
Today's collectors, the "modern Morgans" like Norton Simon, Ross Perot and Bill Gates, or even some of the many hundreds of people who currently own a letter of Lincoln, Washington, or Jefferson have great potential for eventually building museums of their own. These individuals should be encouraged, not stymied by regulations, to build museums or, instead, put their collections on loan and give needed capital to museums.
And the truth is that private collectors, rather than store their treasures in private vaults, often donate or loan their collections to museums and other public institutions. When you go to a museum to see an exhibit, many times you are actually seeing some private person's collection. That's how institutions and museums get their collections in the first place. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Getty, the Boston Museum are all filled with private collections donated to them. Robert Park, the curator of the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York, said, "I'm not bothered by (private collectors buying historical documents) because private collectors provide some of our most enthusiastic support."
And where did these generous patrons find the pieces to build up their collections to such a level of importance that museums have devoted entire wings, if not buildings, to them? From estates, individuals and others who decided to sell their letters, many of whom had held on to their family papers for decades, centuries and generations.
It is one thing for a private collector to be able to own historical documents, and it is entirely another matter as to how that person behaves with his collection. For a private collector to be a good custodian of the public legacy he should allow the public to enjoy that legacy. After all, the reason Morgan or Huntington escaped the rancor surrounding the private ownership of their manuscripts was because they were prudent and considerate collectors who realized the vital importance of sharing their collections with the public.
Happily, there are so many other stories about private collectors who are generous and act responsibly with their treasures, and we can list a few noteworthy ones. The recent story of Bill Gates, mentioned earlier, is a prime example. Gates was vilified by some, especially the Italian Government, because he was a private purchaser with no museum in which to house the Codex manuscript. But Gates promised that not only will he not use the historical masterpiece for commercial purposes, but he will in fact lend it at least half the time to museums. And to allay the fears of the Italian Government, its first engagement will be a year-long tour of museums in Italy.
Take Alfred W. Stern of Chicago, Illinois, as another example. When the government didn't buy the 1863 letter Abraham Lincoln sent to Major General Joseph Hooker, in which he put the officer in charge of the Army of the Potomac, Stern stepped in and purchased it himself in 1941 at a New York auction for a then record $15,000. In 1953, Stern donated his large Lincoln collection, and an endowment for "perpetual enlargement," to the Library of Congress. Whereas the government didn't buy the letter when it came on the market, look how the public came out in the end.
Walter Annenberg recently donated a premier van Gogh to New York's Metropolitan Museum of art. He also pledged to leave his extraordinary art collection to the Met when he dies. Annenberg has often said that his philanthropy comes from a deep conviction that individual efforts to help others will be infinitely more successful and meaningful than government programs. As noble as this line of reasoning is, and it is very noble indeed, it is also apparent that this belief is shared by many collectors in our world.
THE BARRETT DEFENSE: The "Circle of Collecting"
Certainly building a museum or donating a large collection has not been feasible nor the ultimate goal of many other major collectors of historical documents over the years. But take the case of Oliver Barrett as an interesting variation of the public- minded collector. Throughout his life he unabashedly purchased letters, mostly those written by Lincoln. Benjamin Thomas, author of one of the most respected biographies of Lincoln, once noted, "The Barrett Collection is so full and basic that a pretty good life of Lincoln could be written from it alone, whereas no present-day life could be written without it."
One fascinating aspect of Barrett's life was his friendship with Lincoln biographer Carl Sandburg. In 1949, the historian wrote another Lincoln book, this time an entire book devoted exclusively to Barrett's collection. Entitled "Lincoln Collector: The Story of Oliver Barrett's Great Private Collection," Sandburg's book told the story of how the collection was brought into existence, and is the only Lincoln collection on which an entire book has been written.
The famous Sandburg did not condemn Barrett for buying up Lincoln letters, or his decision to not build a museum to house his collection. On the contrary, he praised it. "The collector's flair leading Barrett since he was a boy has resulted in a mass of source materials wherein are many items that would have probably been lost for historical purposes but for the sagacity and method by which they were sought."
Barrett won the support and friendship of Sandburg and other scholars because he opened up his collection to the public in two unique ways: He allowed researchers free access to study Lincoln through his outstanding cross-section of letters from every phase of Lincoln's life – something expected of public institutions, and a duty he felt he had as a private collector. Barrett also opened up his collection to the public in another way, enabling other Lincoln collectors like himself the opportunity to build their own, and perhaps better, Lincoln collection: In 1952 his collection was released and opened up to the public by way of the Parke-Bernet auction house in New York.
Barrett had come full circle. His collection got its start from the flow of historical documents through the marketplace – by the decisions of many previous owners to sell their personal, albeit historical property. Now, at the end of his life, he was doing the same. One collector who capitalized on the sale of the Barrett Collection was the late magazine tycoon and autograph collector, Malcolm S. Forbes, Sr. The "Wanting to work" letter (eventually found its way into his collection. As a result, it joined many other important letters of Lincoln, Washington, Jefferson and other Presidents, many of which remain on either permanent or revolving display at the Forbes Magazine building in New York. Amazingly, the Barrett auction eventually gave birth to a collection even greater than the one Barrett himself put together. The remarkable holdings of the Forbes Collection were made possible in part because the Barrett Collection went to Sotheby's – not to Harvard or Yale.
In essence, if a private collector decides to donate a piece to a public institution, that's great, even commendable. But if he decides to sell that piece, it only means that, like Barrett and others, this generational rite of passage called the "circle of collecting" begins again. There's nothing wrong with that, legally or, more important, morally. It only means that other private collectors will now have a chance to build an important historical legacy. And once that collection becomes so important or large, it may then be destined to be shown at a museum or library.
All private collectors should make known their holdings so researchers and scholars can find them. We do feel that it is his or her duty to share his historical holdings with people in that way. After all, the public benefits most from a collection not because of a momentary glimpse of a museum exhibition which will soon be gone for a long time, but because scholars and researchers know where to find these artifacts and can study these source materials.
Certainly there are those collectors who invest in historical documents purely for speculation and with little regard for the common good. These people are the biggest fear of institutions and museum directors. Unfortunately, those kinds of people will always be around. Financial concerns don't always allow us to be purists. But the point is that it is not fair to group most private collectors with these few bad apples.
Most private collectors do act responsibly, and more and more of them are acting as good guardians of these historical documents. One major reason is that technological breakthroughs, like CD-ROM's, have made it a lot easier for private, as well as public, institutions or individuals to share their collections with people and scholars. Whole collections can now be placed on a small disc and people can study them when they need to, or enjoy them at their leisure. These small discs are the latest ways for institutions and private individuals to reach out to the public without the public ever setting foot in a museum. The ease and availability which this technology is giving people to view collections, indeed entire museums, is rapidly making the public-vs.-private-ownership-of-historical-holdings debate rather anticlimactic. After all, if scholars and researchers, indeed the public at large, will be able to see any collection at any time, perhaps the identity of who actually owns the originals won't be as significant, regardless whether it's a private individual or a public institution.
THE BUSINESS OF MUSEUMS
But for a moment, let us assume that this technology doesn't exist, and let us deal with the question of museums in a purely philosophical vacuum. Remember, there were two assumptions that the argument for public institutions to own historical documents rested on. The first was that private collectors were not good custodians of these treasures. I have argued rather extendedly (even if you don't think convincingly) that I don't believe that to be the case. The second assumption was that public institutions, like museums and libraries, are good custodians of our artifacts. Now I would like to discuss several reasons why, unfortunately, that may not be the case.
First of all, there is the nuts and bolts question of space. Public institutions are short on exhibition space and long on filing cabinets. Museums, universities, government places, etc. all own tons of items already. The likelihood of new material going on display is rather remote. And even if it does, how long will it be put on display and when will it appear again? The answer to both questions is not for a long time.
The Director of the Whitney Museum in New York admitted recently that more than 97% of the works in the Whitney's collections are in storage, since the Whitney lacks the gallery space to show them in large scale or long term exhibitions. The Natural History Museum in Los Angeles claims that 95% of its holdings are stashed away in warehouses and vaults. Its overall collection of photographs, books and historical papers is believed to be the third largest in the nation, trailing only the Smithsonian and New York's American Museum of Natural History. And roughly 1 million pieces from this collection are packed away in cabinets and vaults. Sadly, it is a known fact that most donated presidential letters, including those given to the Library of Congress or the Smithsonian, sit in museum or library file cabinets just gathering dust for decades, if not longer.
Even scarier, stories are beginning to leak out about the incompetence with which several major public institutions have been handling their valuable assets. Take the story of the Library of Congress as one frightening example. With 532 miles of books and 109 million total items spilling out over its shelves, the Library had already reached maximum capacity when it admitted several years ago that it had lost track of 300,000 of its books and other objects, many of which were rare and priceless. "With a collection as large as the Library of Congress has…it would be impossible to track absolutely every book at any given time," library spokeswoman Jill Brett stated. And when the General Accounting Office finished the first-ever financial audit of the 194-year-old institution in 1991, its report stated that "because of the weaknesses in the library's financial management operations, its ability to account for and control its collection was limited. Other assets could have been lost or misappropriated." The conclusion of the audit was damning: "The Library could not effectively ensure the safeguarding of its collection." These tales of incompetence aren't just limited to the Library of Congress, but since it is one of the largest public institutions, its horror story overshadows those of most other museums and libraries.
This is not just the opinion of one bitter former curator. The marketplace is filled with former curators and directors who have left to work in the private sector. These former public collectors feel that museums are no longer good places to work with art objects. In other words, this informed group of professionals feel that public institutions can't even bother with anything less than bit items or expensive objects and that the serious collecting of worthy and important items is being done in the private arena where collectors are not concerned with such large overheads and bureaucracies. In this sad scenario, it appears that public institutions wouldn't even be interested in most of the historic documents that are bought and sold in the marketplace anyway.
In yet another example of the "profiting from culture" motive at work in public institutions, museums are beginning to use their assets to raise money, just like businesses and private individuals. Most notable is the trend of bigger and older museums to rent collections to smaller and newer museums for a fee, which they then use to pay some bills. Last year, for example, the Whitney Museum in New York improved its cash flow by sharing its collection with the San Jose Museum of Art in California. It's certainly no secret in these economic times of ours that museums need cash, perhaps more than donated material, to stay open longer, hire more staff and absorb all donated and exhibition-grade items. In essence, the tax laws favor the donor over the recipient (the museum itself), because the public is allowed to deduct fine art at current market value, not at cost, (which would result in a much lower tax deduction). This has led to a flood of materials to museums and institutions, but little cash, greatly impeding the flow of exhibitions from reaching the public eye.
On the surface, there is nothing wrong with collections touring this country. It means that more of the public will have the ability to see and enjoy these artifacts. But some of our museums are setting up loan-for-cash agreements with museums in other countries. The Boston Museum plans to launch a new museum in Nagoya, Japan, and the Guggenheim will establish anew museum in Bilbao, Spain. There is nothing to stop these public institutions from sending over historical documents to other countries and thus depriving the American public of the ability to view them. Most curators and directors do have a sense of the public good when they make decisions which guide their institutions. But with finances so tenuous, can we truly be comfortable that these same directors won't send our important historical documents overseas if a foreign government or institution waves tens of millions of dollars at them?
The fact of the matter is that museums and other public institutions are beginning to act more and more like private businesses, and are making decisions based on profit, not based on preserving our common legacy. Just like private individuals, public institutions are captive of economics. When culture is mixed with economic reality, no wonder economics is known sometimes as "the dismal science." No other trend illustrates this point better than the increase in the rate of deaccession – the sale of all or part of a collection owned by an institution. Museums and libraries are supposed to deaccess only to raise funds necessary to improve the quality of a collection, eliminate redundancy and refine its focus. But the truth of the matter is that public institutions are selling off letters and other cultural property to raise money for their operations. In other words, these public institutions are selling off Lincoln and Washington paraphernalia just to keep their doors open, not to mention keeping their lights on and their air conditioners running. Just follow the recent press on the activities of the New York Historical Society which has sold, and will continue to sell off, many of its holdings just to cover its overhead.
The irony of all this is that many of the historical documents and other pieces of Americana being sold at auctions today are being sold by the very institutions and repositories that NBC, Ken Burns and others consider to be the endpoint of all private papers! And these public institutions are selling these items right back to private collectors. Certainly manuscripts, historical documents, and works of art might eventually end up in public institutions. But in these cultural times of ours, those same letters and documents might end up being sold or traded many times over along the way.
Private collectors can be just as careful, generous and responsible with historical documents as their public counterparts. Likewise, and unfortunately, public institutions can be just as careless with their treasures as an irresponsible individual. In a day and age when the actions of public institutions are driven by the very same instincts which drive private individuals – the love of these artifacts as well as the desire to make a profit – it is clear to us that the argument presented by NBC, Ken Burns and others is rather misguided, if not flat out wrong. The bottom line to this debate, in our opinion, is that you, the private collector, should not only continue your activities, but feel good about what you are doing.
Originally printed in INSIDER'S REPORT, March, 1995.
T.R. and the Car: One President's Love is Another President's NuisanceBenjamin Shapell
Americans have a love affair with the car, from the common man all the way up to the President of the United States. So it really wasn't any surprise that President Clinton jumped on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the Mustang last year to proudly show off his very own sporty Ford. Being the first "Baby Boomer" President, Clinton has a natural attachment to the Ford Mustang, which is the first car that the baby boom generation can call its very own. Born in 1964, a year that defined Clinton and his generation, the Mustang came on the scene right after President Kennedy was assassinated, during the same year that the Civil Rights Act was passed, the Free Speech Movement began at Berkeley, the Vietnam War began in earnest. "Goldfinger" and "Dr. Strangelove" were on the big screen and Elvis was king.
Not every President has been so enthusiastic about the car, however. In 1905, Theodore Roosevelt wrote to a Charles Hughes in England, "Motor cars are a trial, aren't they? I suppose that ultimately we will get them into their proper place in the scheme of nature…but just at present I regard them as distinct additions to the discomfort of living."
Roosevelt was speaking from experience – he was the first President to ride in an automobile, having been a passenger in a purple-lined Columbia Electric Victoria on a trip through Hartford, Connecticut, on August 22, 1902. That little adventure occurred only nine years after the first car was built in America by Charles Duryea and a year before Henry Ford established his car company in Dearborn, Michigan.
T.R. was a pioneer of sorts in the field of transportation. The Wright Brothers' first airplane flight took place on December 17, 1903, during Roosevelt's presidency, and the Rough Rider was the first President to ride in an airplane in 1910 soon after leaving office. T.R. was also the first President to go down in a submarine when he went aboard the Plunger in 1905 and submerged twenty feet off the coast of Long Island, N.Y. for fifty-five minutes.
Probably the greatest achievement in the area of transportation during T.R.'s presidency was the construction of the Panama Canal. Aware of the pressing strategic need for a shortcut between the Atlantic and Pacific, Roosevelt himself masterminded the construction of the Canal. He also visited the engineering masterpiece in 1906, becoming the first President to leave the U.S. during his term in office. The enthusiastic letter he sent to President Amador of Panama thanking him for a gift became, perhaps, the first letter ever written by an American President on foreign soil.
So if T.R. was such a visionary about the airplane, submarine and the Canal, why was he so blind to the one transportation invention that would most define our country in this century? After all, T.R. could have led his countrymen in embracing the automobile by riding in one during his 1905 inauguration. But Roosevelt consciously passed up that opportunity, leaving it to Warren Harding to be the first President to ride in a car during his inauguration in 1921.
Perhaps T.R. just wasn't psychologically ready for the car to replace the great love of his life – horses. Being an avid hunter, T.R. had spent some of his happiest times chasing his prey on a horse. And the great Rough Rider didn't storm San Juan Hill from the backseat of a Chevy. The plane, the sub, and the Canal didn't affect transportation on land as fundamentally as the horseless carriage did, so maybe T.R. was ready to accept only those advancements which didn't alter his own personal lifestyle.
In fairness to our twenty-sixth President, T.R. did view their "proper place in the scheme of nature," as he wrote in his 1905 letter. In fact, T.R. had the foresight to grow and accept, even admire the automobile. In 1908, an American team won an automobile race from New York to Paris,* and Roosevelt congratulated the crew for "putting America to the front in automobile manufacturing."
A far more significant development concerning the future of the automobile happened that same year when Henry Ford produced the first Model T. With the introduction of this cheap, mass-produced car, the automobile moved very quickly from being a novelty to an integral part of American life. T.R. embraced Ford as a man "…I feel not merely friendliness, but…a very genuine admiration."
And in a 1916 letter to his friend Henry Fairfield Osborn, Roosevelt gushed, "There is one thing that Beebe ought to have as soon as possible, and that is a Ford car. It would make the greatest difference in his work…he has to spend an hour at the very best part of the day in getting out to his ordinary hunting grounds…There isn't anything that would do more for the success of that station than a Ford car."
Maybe T.R. would have reached his enthusiasm for the car a little quicker if he had been able to read about it in Jules Verne's 1863 novel "Paris in the Twentieth Century." The amazingly prescient manuscript described what Paris would be like in 1960. Not only did Verne predict the advent of the fax, the electric chair and the computer, but he also described amazing contraptions controlled by steering wheels and gas pedals. He wrote that "an invisible force with a gas-powered motor made them move." But Verne's publisher was unimpressed with the book, and rejected it. Verne locked it away in a safe where it stayed until 1989 when the author's great-grandson re-discovered it. It's just now being published.
T.R. did not have the luxury of Verne's predictions to fall back on, so he had to develop his own vision of the automobile's place on the road, and in society. Evidently, it took him a while. Given President Clinton's personal affection for his own jalopy and President Roosevelt's negative attitude towards the car in that wonderful 1905 letter he wrote to Charles Hughes, it's clear that one President's love for the car was another President's nuisance. Perhaps if Clinton could have cruised around with T.R. in his Mustang, the "discomfort of living" the older man felt for the car early on might have given way to an appreciation of riding around in a convertible with the radio blaring and the wind rushing through his hair.
And just to show how far the Presidential auto has come over the years from that first short trip T.R. took around Hartford, Connecticut, in 1902, a new 22-foot - 6-inch-long Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham recently joined the White House fleet. The new limo has a telephone, a public address system, a stereo and lots of armor. It flies wherever the President goes. This big car comfortably seats six which means it could probably squeeze through the Panama Canal, as well as a McDonald's takeout window.
*How can you have an automobile race from New York to Paris? The drivers raced westward to Alaska. They and their cars then crossed the Bering Strait by ferry.
Originally published in INSIDER'S REPORT, March, 1995.
Clinton and the Ladies (Its not what you think)Benjamin Shapell
One of the first challenges a newly-elected President must face before taking office is the tedious process of selecting his cabinet and filling other important government positions. It is one of the most important tasks a President must address, and one fraught with potential political risk. Upon his election in 1856, bachelor President James Buchanan anticipated the difficulty of selecting his cabinet and looked for spiritual strength and guidance from his friend, Reverend Henry Slicer: "I trust that a kind Providence will bestow upon me wisdom from on high to enable [me] to choose the proper men for the proper places." Buchanan knew the task could be formidable – fifteen years before, John Tyler made 26 changes in his cabinet in less than four years in office, the most ever made by any President.
Since the beginning of his Presidency over one year ago, President Clinton has also had a difficult time filling important government posts. He has endured a well-publicized and seemingly endless series of searches and rejections, mangled nominations and embarrassing resignations. In fulfilling his promise of assembling a diverse cabinet, he has gone beyond Buchanan's "gender limitations" by trying to find the proper women for the proper places, as well. Of his first 11 appointments, men outnumbered women 7 – 4 in the gender game, but the ladies could not help feeling like the winners.
For the first six months of his term, however, Clinton might have done better had he kept to Buchanan's credo of finding "proper men." When it came time to consider nominees for key posts in the Department of Justice, Clinton's long, drawn-out failure to do so was politically devastating. He had tried to break up the "Boys' Club" that had effectively locked up the Big Four power posts, the Departments of Justice, State, Defense and Treasury. But then came "Nannygate." Zoe Baird's nomination for Attorney General was withdrawn following disclosures that she had hired two illegal immigrants and failed to pay their Social Security and unemployment taxes. Clinton's relaxed questioning of Baird's replacement, Kimba Wood, subsequently failed to reveal that she, too, had an illegal nanny problem. On the third try, "dark horse" Miami prosecutor Janet Reno seemed to come out of nowhere to capture the top post, only to be blamed for the April 1993 fiasco at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas.
After only one hundred days, "misjudgment" seemed to be an appropriate label to pin on this administration that repeatedly made selections it soon came to regret. But the nightmare only continued. For the third time in as many months, Clinton dropped an esteemed female lawyer from consideration for a top Justice Department post – this time, Lani Guinier, whom he had nominated only days before for the top civil rights job in the Department, in spite of her controversial writings on minority representation.
Following the Guinier affair, Clinton might well have had enough of the "ladies" and hitched his wagon to Buchanan's plan of choosing men. Yet choosing the proper men for the proper places proved to be just as trying and embarrassing a task for Clinton. In June, he attempted to fill yet another judicial post, that of Supreme Court Justice, in the wake of Justice Byron White's decision to step down from the bench. But Clinton again ran up against a brick wall. Likely nominee Stephen Breyer had also failed to pay Social Security taxes for a part-time cleaning woman. Finally, six months into his term, Clinton got it right with his selection of female Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who was quickly confirmed. And in September, Clinton's nominee for Surgeon General, Joycelyn Elders, squeaked by her Senate confirmation after a three-month battle.
Clinton's most visible and controversial personnel change, however, occurred with the forced resignation of a cabinet member: Defense Secretary Les Aspin. The Clinton administration found itself on yet another frantic search for a replacement, with General Colin Powell, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sam Nunn, and former Republican Senator from New Hampshire Warren Rudman all turning Clinton down. Bobby Inman, a former admiral and deputy director of the CIA, finally got the nod, only to yank his own nomination in a bizarre move which stunned the administration. William Perry, second in line at the Department of Defense, eventually agreed to take the job and was quickly confirmed by the Senate.
The Whitewater controversy has brought issues of the President's competency, professionalism and honesty to the forefront, with enormously powerful men and women in Clinton's administration now being subpoenaed to testify before Congress. Just last month, White House Counsel Bernard Nussbaum submitted his resignation, bringing to an end a year-long tenure marked by accusations that he had compromised President Clinton's political standing. Nussbaum apparently had a knack for political miscues, with his advice contributing to the withdrawals of three female candidates – Baird, Wood and Guinier. Clinton's "revolving door" administration is rapidly beginning to show its age, with Nussbaum's resignation signaling perhaps only the beginning of many others to follow.
Often down, but never out, Bill Clinton has weathered many storms in the past – during his childhood, his marriage, his rocky Presidential candidacy, and his first year in office. Each time, he has been able to hang in there and somehow muscle his way back to the front of the line. However, Whitewater represents Clinton's toughest challenge to date, with his personal decisions affecting his business affairs perhaps calling his own job security into question.
Not surprisingly, the Whitewater investigation has also zeroed in on perhaps Bill Clinton's top advisor and confidante, First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, who was herself responsible for the selection of many of the President's appointees. New focus has been placed on Hillary's 20-year professional career, as investigators and reporters now eagerly sift through her records for evidence of conflicts of interest in her law practice, mis-reported income on her tax returns or funds funneled to her and her family by Whitewater partner James McDougal. One thing seems almost certain, however – that there was a whole lot of paper shredding going on at The Rose Law Firm (Hillary's old office) as Bill Clinton edged closer and closer to the Presidency and on into 1993.
In the past, some Presidents have benefited considerably from their wives' contributions during their administrations. Jacqueline Kennedy was certainly one, Eleanor Roosevelt another fine example. Others, like Mary Todd Lincoln, with her Confederate relatives and controversial spending habits, were a constant source of embarrassment and uneasiness for their husbands.
As the Whitewater affair unfolds and his wife's possible role in the scandal comes under increased scrutiny, it is ironic that Bill Clinton is likely to suffer the most damage from someone who, though she has wielded enormous de facto power within the administration, cannot be fired or even forced to resign. That, I'm sure, is something James Buchanan could never have imagined!
Originally Published in INSIDER'S REPORT, April, 1994.
On the Inside Looking Out: Cornered in the "Great White Jail"Benjamin Shapell
"I don't know whether it's the finest public housing in America or the crown jewel of the prison system." - Bill Clinton, on life in the White House, November 7, 1993. The office of the President can be a perilous place, and not only when it comes to one's personal safety. New Presidents quickly begin to realize that the White House can be a lonely and isolating place, despite all its princely amenities. While the "house" serves as a safe haven and refuge, Presidents frequently complain that they cannot lead normal lives, that the job of the Chief Executive takes away their freedom.
In essence, the residence itself and the workload itself are inseparable. "Working out of one's home" provides virtually no escape from the frustrations of such a demanding position. For many of its inhabitants, the Presidential chair has seemed more like the electric chair. Why anyone would even consider running for office in the first place, let alone pursue a second term, is baffling to most of us.
In fairness, however, the White House has provided quite a pleasant experience for many Presidents, such as Theodore Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan. And Thomas Jefferson, three months into his first term, seemed to like the place well enough, calling the Executive Mansion a "pleasant country residence."
But for other Presidents, the great responsibility carried by the office quickly turned into an overwhelming burden, showing its true face quite early on. Just one year into his term of office, President John Tyler wrote happily of the few occasions when he could escape from the "prison" of his office.
On December 21, 1850, only five months into his term, Millard Fillmore referred to the White House as "that temple of inconvenience." Four months into his term, and just days before he was shot by assassin Charles Guiteau, James Garfield wrote to his wife of his isolation: "I am…altogether alone in this very deserted house."
And less than two years into his first term, President Ulysses S. Grant wrote: "I have always had your support in my present trying place, as I had your support in the battlefield."
Nine months into his term, on December 13, 1885, Cleveland wrote to his bride-to-be: "I have been thinking a good deal lately how nice it would be to have a little home a few miles away and live there – coming into the White House at regular times and having all the official business here, but having a place where it should not enter, and where the President and his family could live like other people."
Almost one year into his term, Chester Arthur lamented the "never ending and still beginning pressure upon my time and attention."
Certain Presidents seemed to carry the burden of the Chief Executive's pressured life much heavier than others, through both national and personal upheaval. For them, all the benefits, glory and material gains of living in the White House couldn't keep away the everyday problems of the common man: tragedy, loneliness, and sorrow. Rutherford B. Hayes, having been accused of stealing the election of 1876, entered office with a cloud hanging over his head. To avoid a ruckus, he was secretly sworn in as President in a private ceremony one day before his official inauguration.
Harry Truman also had his share of troubles, as the only one of eight Vice Presidents to inherit a major war along with the Presidency upon the death of his predecessor. Only four months after taking over the office of President, Truman decisively ordered that the atomic bomb be dropped to put an end to World War II.
Some Presidents, however, were caught unprepared and found it difficult to rebound from setbacks and unexpected events that effectively crippled their Presidencies. Jimmy Carter's attempted rescue in 1980 of American hostages in Iran provides a tragic case in point.
On other occasions, Presidents' personal tragedies within the spacious, but confining, boundaries of the White House weighed heavily on top of their already incessant burdens of responsibility. Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation freeing the slaves within its very walls. But it was there, less than one year before, that he witnessed the death of his eleven-year-old son, Willie – the only child of a President to actually die in the White House.
Shortly after he took office, Calvin Coolidge also experienced the loss of a son: sixteen-year-old Calvin, Jr., who died of an infection from a seemingly innocent blister sustained while playing tennis on the White House grounds. "When he went," wrote the former President in his autobiography, "the power and glory of the Presidency went with him." Coolidge's surviving son, John, summed up the cruel irony: "I supposed that [Father] thought if he hadn't been President, Calvin wouldn't have been playing tennis and wouldn't have gotten the blister."
Early in his first term, Woodrow Wilson lost his wife of nearly thirty years. And Presidents-elect Andrew Jackson and Franklin Pierce each suffered devastating blows shortly before their respective inaugurations. In Jackson's case, it was the death of his beloved wife, Rachel. For Pierce, it was the violent death of his eleven-year-old son, who was killed right before his eyes in a train accident.
As President Bill Clinton enters his second year in office, circumstances dictate that now might be a logical time for him to reflect upon the challenges he faces, as well as upon the frustration and disillusionment of being President. Needless to say, his domestic plate appears to be quite full these days.
In previous issues of Insider's Report we have followed Clinton's transition and inauguration, as well as the first 100 days of his administration. In "Crossroads and Transitions: The Transfer of Executive Power" (January, 1993), we wondered if Clinton and other Presidents-elect ever stopped to ask themselves, "What am I getting myself into?" Today, Clinton, like some second-year Presidents before him, might likely be wondering: "What have I gotten myself into?"
It was once said that Bill Clinton never got over his boyhood handshake with President John F. Kennedy in the Rose Garden all those years ago, and that his life was devoted to going back there to live someday. Perhaps now he has second thoughts about ever having considered throwing his hat into the ring. Like Tyler, Fillmore, Grant and Cleveland, Clinton is certainly not immune to the "second-year blues." In his first 100 days, Clinton's approval rating slipped to 45%. No newly-elected President since Eisenhower has tumbled so low in a Gallup Poll so early in his term. Perhaps that accounts for Clinton's revealing remark on April 23, 1993 that he had "spent a year in Washington this week."
And it just doesn't seem to be getting any better. Despite some success with the budget deficit, NAFTA and the Brady Bill, Clinton has had a difficult time appointing people to key government positions and, apparently, an even more controversial time keeping them in those jobs (see "Clinton and the Ladies"). Allegations by Arkansas state troopers of Clinton's secret romantic liaisons late last year took the President and the country by surprise. And the projected ace of his first term, his own health care plan, is in trouble – a problem compounded by the departure of Clinton's powerful ally, Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell.
The biggest political crisis Clinton faces, however, remains the "Whitewater" controversy, the troubled Arkansas real agency estate deal gone awry, the proverbial monkey on his back. As the President arduously defends himself and the First Lady against charges of wrongdoing, mounting evidence in Washington points to a possible obstruction of justice in the Whitewater case – a charge even more damaging, perhaps, than the original real estate controversy. Meanwhile, the Republicans are lustfully hoping to "even the score" on the 20th anniversary of Watergate (although Whitewater seems to pale in comparison to Richard Nixon's orchestrated program of domestic espionage). At this critical crossroads in his Presidency, could Bill Clinton possibly have imagined a worse nightmare?
The Clinton Presidency faces an uphill struggle, indeed. In a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News Poll, only 35% of Americans said that they were very confident that Mr. Clinton has the "right set of personal characteristics" to be President, down from 50% a year earlier. And only 33% of those polled, down from 50% last year, give him high marks for his "ethical and moral values."
The very same Clinton who bolted out of the starting gate one year ago has now fallen back to regroup. But so goes the Presidency. The pressure and the isolation just don't ever seem to get any easier to bear, no matter how far along a President is into his term.
Benjamin Harrison, in a letter he wrote after more than three years in office, complained: "How very hot & very lonesome – not a soul in the house but me."
And James K. Polk, writing at the beginning of his third year in office, remarked: "After my constant confinement here, for more than two years, with the exception of less than a week last summer, I feel that some little respite from my public labours and cares – will be proper, if not necessary."
Bill Clinton has already voiced his need to get away from it all, and he is only entering his second year. Echoing Tyler's "prison" thoughts, as well as Polk's feelings of "confinement," Clinton summed up his first year in the White House thusly: "Well, it's pretty confining. And I always say I don't know whether it's the finest public housing in America, or the crown jewel of the prison system. It's a very isolating life."
Nevertheless, the President seems to be up for the challenge. Not long ago, he conceded that the bad days are just part of being President. "I didn't run to have a pleasant time," he noted. On the other hand, Clinton emphasized the fact that public officials are as human as the rest of us: "They need to recharge their batteries, they need to let their spirits soar, they need to let their hair down, and it's just difficult to do if the only place you can do it is sort of in your house. You can never do it outside, ever. It's tough."
No wonder the President is perceived by so many as living in a "bubble." Such is an aptly described analogy for the confinement of the White House, for while the President may catch a glimpse of the outside world, he remains isolated from that same world.
Harry Truman wanted no more of the "hot seat" when he turned down a chance to run for re-election in 1952. He never regretted it or missed it. High office had sought Harry Truman, not he the Presidency. When a reporter asked him what he did his first day back home, Truman responded that he took the suitcases up to the attic and immediately blended in as a private citizen once more. Truman was so happy to get out of Washington that only three years after leaving the most powerful office in the world, he managed to forget the very address where he had served as the nation's 33rd President, mistakenly referring to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue as "1600 Connecticutt [sic] Avenue."
One thing Truman couldn't forget, however, was the great isolation of the White House itself, which he called the "great white jail." What a fitting farewell, and what better way to refer to this "trying place," whose responsibilities George Washington once described as "an ocean of difficulties." President Clinton is certainly in good company, finding solace in an area where, perhaps, he feels the least alone.
Originally published in INSIDER'S REPORT, April, 1994.
War is HellBenjamin Shapell
While appointments of key administration personnel can often be troublesome, as we have just pointed out, resignations of key government officials can also present a major problem for the President. Frequently such occurrences involve lower-level cabinet positions. But when such an exit involves an important position and a recognizable individual, an administration is often left groping in the dark. Firing a top administration official is perhaps one of the hardest decisions a President can make, short of going to war. He is left to negotiate a political minefield that invariably calls his judgment into question for having hired the person in the first place.
Some Presidents rarely fired anyone during their terms of office. Others, like Richard Nixon, were forced to jettison top aides in order to save their Presidencies. Harry Truman took hell for it and created many enemies when he abruptly fired General Douglas MacArthur during the Korean War. But sometimes Presidents are willing to face political risks and simply cut their losses. President Clinton, after a relatively short time in office, recently faced those risks in the wake of the forced resignation of Secretary of Defense Les Aspin. Aspin's dismissal was handled relatively smoothly and with dignity. However, Clinton soon found himself back in the lion's den with the appointment and subsequent embarrassing withdrawal of Aspin's replacement, Bobby Inman, for which he endured much public criticism and ridicule.
Interestingly, Aspin's departure brings to mind the dismissal of another controversial Secretary of War: Harry Woodring, who was forced to resign by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1940. Woodring had been a strong advocate of neutrality, opposing aid in the form of crucial American planes and surplus military supplies to the beleaguered Allies. Roosevelt wanted someone whose views on the war in Europe more closely mirrored his own and asked for Woodring's resignation on June 19, 1940 in a three-page letter handwritten on White House stationery.
Like Woodring, Aspin also seemed to lack clout and credibility. He had been at the center of controversy since the beginning of his tenure when he was embroiled in the fight over allowing gays in the military. Aspin was also widely criticized for being disorganized, and in October was denounced for not sending badly needed armored vehicles to American troops in Somalia, the direct result of which was numerous fatalities. Coincidentally, both Aspin and Woodring were offered diplomatic posts to take the sting out of their forced resignations and to keep them quiet about their departures. The door was left open for Aspin to take the post of U.S. Ambassador to China, and Woodring, in the same letter in which President Roosevelt asked for his resignation, was offered the Governorship of Puerto Rico.
But that's where the similarities end. At the time of Woodring's resignation, the United States was at a critical crossroads, and Woodring insisted on being heard. He took Roosevelt's letter as an opportunity to reiterate his personal belief that the U.S. should not get involved in a European war, and that the nation's defense should receive first priority. Roosevelt, on the other hand, had made it clear that he wished to aid Britain and France by all means short of war, even if it meant a temporary weakening of U.S. military strength. After all, only a month earlier Norway, Denmark, Belgium and the Netherlands had been invaded by the Germans. And on June 5 – only 14 days before Roosevelt's letter to Woodring – Germany invaded France.
In a speech Roosevelt delivered on June 10, 1940, he announced that U.S. policy was changing from "neutrality" to "non-belligerency," which, in practice, meant that the U.S. would openly support the Allies without itself going to war. Woodring's continued differences with the administration's evolving philosophy finally had to be dealt with.
This year, which marks the 50th anniversary of D-Day, the turning point of the second World War, events leading up to that historic day are certainly of great importance. Had the attack on Pearl Harbor not occurred just one and one-half years after Woodring's forced resignation, the U.S. might likely have stayed out of the war entirely. Nevertheless, Woodring's 1940 departure significantly impacted U.S. foreign policy, especially as it applied to England. It was, after all, a high level resignation by a major U.S. government official in the midst of a major war in Europe, occurring just weeks before the Battle of Britain.
As autograph dealers, collectors, and historians, we are fortunate to have access to FDR's three-page handwritten letter of dismissal to his controversial Secretary of War. Indeed, such a rare specimen opens the door for additional research into FDR's handwriting habits as President – sure to be included in an upcoming issue of Insider's Report. Our limited study of Franklin Roosevelt shows him to have written ALS's as President only sparingly, generally saving them for important occasions and individuals.
In our 1992 "Top 10" list of the rarest U.S. Presidents in handwritten letters found in private hands, we found only four full-page FDR letters signed in full – not many at all for a President who served 12 years. Being an autograph collector himself, however, Roosevelt was acutely aware of the value of autograph letters and, like Herbert Hoover (see the December 1993 issue of Insider's Report) he seemed to deliberately limit his handwritten letter output. We will look forward to tackling the FDR question full force when we soon begin our report on his ALS's found in the public sector.
Originally published in INSIDER’S REPORT, March, 1994
Fame, Fortune and Sorrow: Remembering JFK in 1993Benjamin Shapell
On November 19, 1963, the country marked with solemn pride the 100th anniversary of Lincoln's immortal Gettysburg Address. But three days later, President Kennedy's fateful ride through the streets of Dallas cost America not only the loss of one [of] her most beloved presidents, but her innocence as well. These two November events form an indelible part of American history. In fact, every five years the memory of these events is respectfully acknowledged. This year's 130th anniversary of Lincoln's speech was predictably met with the release of new books and exhibitions from coast to coast. But thirty years after the President was shot in Dallas, the country still mourns. No doubt, the Kennedy assassination will likewise be remembered 130 years from now, with the controversial events of that day still hotly debated.
That November day in Texas is, without question, the saddest and most shocking single day event in over 200 years of American history. Thirty years later, outlets of expression and frustration continue to appear in the form of Oscar-nominated movies, countless television programs, and an endless flow of books (10 new conspiracy books in the past year alone) all trying to solve the assassination riddle. Question after question continues to be raised due to our insatiable thirst and yearning for the truth. The country has never stopped dwelling on conspiracy theories ever since the famous Apruder film was first viewed by the public in 1975 (a surprising twelve years after the events which took place in Dallas). The basic questions raised in 1983, on the twentieth anniversary, were similarly and persistently raised in 1988 and 1993: Who was behind the assassination? How many shots? How many shooters? Was the evidence tampered with?, etc.
There is no question that thirty years and seven Presidents later, the hold that John F. Kennedy had on this nation remains strong. He was the first President born in the twentieth century. He was the first President who was a Roman Catholic. He was the first President whose parents survived him. And he was both the youngest President ever elected and the youngest President ever to die.
The utter shock of Kennedy's untimely death was certainly magnified by the fact that, in 1963, it had been over 62 years since a U.S. President had been assassinated. Perhaps America thought it had somehow outgrown Presidential assassinations.
But this article is, foremost, a Kennedy retrospective and a Kennedy tribute. Its intention is not to chase shadows on the grassy knoll or analyze the circuitous path of the now-famous "magic bullet." This past November was saturated enough with article after article on the assassination enigma. As lovers and admirers of the written word, our intention here is to focus on a life lived to the fullest, as revealed by the very correspondence that shaped Kennedy's life and accomplishments. That is our perspective as the year winds down, a year in which that perspective is clearly defined more than ever before.
Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once described his feelings about the assassination this way: "I suppose there's no point in being Irish if you don't know that the world is going to break your heart eventually. But we thought we'd have a little more time." What, then, made Kennedy so great, so beloved? Charles Daly, director of the Kennedy Library in Boston, notes that Kennedy's greatness lies in the "intangibles." He believes that ordinary historical standards cannot be applied to the 35th President: "He should not be judged by the number of bills signed, treaties negotiated, crises managed and programs initiated. Kennedy must be ranked among the greatest American leaders 'for making us really believe.'"
Ranked he is, this President who tapped among young Americans a deep well of idealism and pride-of-country. Kennedy's name topped a recent poll of the most influential people of the last 1000 years. Quite impressive, if not tinged with perhaps some hyperbole. Still, while Winston Churchill may have surpassed all men of his time in his genius of the written English word, John Kennedy's command of the spoken word remains unparalleled until today. As Daly notes, "Kennedy's rhetorical legacy is unmatched by later Presidents, and his unfinished story is one that will hold allure for generations."
And what a story it was. "November, 1963 was not the end," said Caroline Kennedy on the occasion of the dedication of the remodeled Kennedy Library and Museum. There are just too many memories and events of her father's life and Presidential years that form this lasting legacy. Indeed, the dedication on October 29 was just another event in a long line of reminders of Kennedy's Presidency this year. In fact, there have been some potent reminders of the assassination which have reverberated throughout 1993, forcing us to reflect and draw our attention once again to the shocking events of 1963. Jim Garrison, whose book On the Trail of the Assassins became the centerpiece for last year's movie, "JFK," died during this 30th anniversary year of the Kennedy assassination. Also passing this year on June 15 was John Connally, the Texas governor seated in front of Kennedy in the Presidential limousine, who continued to insist that he and Kennedy did not "share" the same (magic) bullet, the single and most important argument of Garrison and others who refute the findings of the Warren Commission. Adding to the agonizing drama in June was the request by the Assassination Archives and Research Center to the Attorney General to have bullet fragments that might still be lodged in Connally's wrist and thigh removed for examination. Matching fragments were removed from Connally and Kennedy after the shooting, but if a new autopsy yielded unmatched fragments, it might mean the end of the single-bullet theory and suggested a second gunman. The family refused.
Curiosity emanating from the release of "JFK" last year continued to filter down in 1993. In August, the National Archives made public 800,000 pages of documents related to the assassination which revealed nothing surprising, but hardly discouraged conspiracy buffs who continue to press on. In September, newly-released White House telephone transcripts showed that President Johnson used the fear of nuclear war with the Soviet Union to persuade key national leaders to participate in the Warren Commission's investigation. Unverified rumors about the involvement of Soviet or Cuban officials in the assassination led Johnson to believe that the United States might be pushed into a war that could kill 40 million Americans in an hour.
While the assassination might have been the tragic endpoint of a life cut unexpectedly short, this year, more than any other "Kennedy-related" year to date, has brought back memories of an amazing life story. In essence, 1993 has brought to mind many important Kennedy milestones and anniversaries – some tragic, some heroic and some sentimental.
These events, more than just the assassination, have contributed to heavily to the Kennedy legacy and folklore: the heroism and romanticism of PT-109, the Lincoln-esque brilliance of his Inaugural Address, his initial failure and subsequent success in Cuba, the global impact of his Peace Corps, the 30th anniversary of major breakthroughs in the Civil Rights movement and the ratification of the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.
If Kennedy were alive today, it is very probable that he would have served two terms as President and remained politically active. This would have been a special anniversary year for him: August would have marked the 50th anniversary of his brush with death as the commander of PT-109, which was rammed by a Japanese destroyer and cut in two during the early hours of August 2, 1943 in the Solomon Islands. Two of the 13 crewmen were killed instantly, but Kennedy managed to save all ten of the men who survived the initial crach, including the severely burned Patrick McMahon. Kennedy put McMahon across his back and kept him there by clenching McMahon's lifejacket strap in his teeth. Having saved his life, Kennedy sent a handwritten letter to McMahon's wife, just nine days after their rescue, reassuring her of her husband's recovery. This published, but never before seen, letter is reproduced on the cover.
This is just a short note to tell you that your husband – though bothered by a hand injury - is alive and well. It is impossible to say now exactly what has happened – but you can have the satisfaction of knowing that through an extremely hard and trying period, your husband acted in a way that has brought him an official commendation – and the respect and affection of the officers and crew with whom he served. He will shortly be able to write himself. With sincere regards, John F. Kennedy/Lt. USNR/Boat Captain of boat on which your husband rode as engineer.
The rescue of the PT-109 crew is legendary, with the folklore fondly remembered through books, movies and songs. Living on coconuts and hope, and moving from one island to another, the crew waited four days before Lieutenant Kennedy succeeded in contacting a group of natives, to whom he gave a coconut with a message scratched on its shell. Later that night, all eleven survivors were picked up. Kennedy returned to base to find himself a hero. He received the Purple Heart, the Navy Medal and the Marine Medal for this action.
September 12 would have marked another important anniversary in the life of John F. Kennedy. It was on that day, 40 years ago, that he was married to Jacqueline Lee Bouvier. Kennedy had remained in contact with Patrick McMahon through the years, and wrote a four-page handwritten letter to him on November 7, 1953, as the newly-elected Senator from Massachusetts (in part):
We were in L.A. during our honeymoon but didn't know your address…Incidentally, I received this summer a letter from the commander of the Japanese destroyer who read about the (PT-109) incident in Time magazine – The name of the Jap destroyer was the Amagiri – Strange, isn't it –"
This year the country commemorated the 25th anniversary of the tragic death of another Kennedy, JFK's brother and Attorney General, Robert F. Kennedy, on June 6, 1968 in Los Angeles. Robert Kennedy was assassinated at a searing moment in one of the most turbulent years in America's history. The occasion was marked with events around the nation as never before seen, with a memorial service at Arlington National Cemetery attended by President Clinton.
The best of Robert Kennedy may be not in what he did, said President Clinton, but in what he has inspired in others. Then-California governor Ronald Reagan, who was an admirer of JFK, was deeply affected by the shooting of Robert in 1968, and sent an urgent telegram on June 5th to Kennedy's wife at Good Samaritan Hospital:
I know there is little anyone can say at such a time but if there is anything we can to do be of help in any way please let us know. Our thoughts and prayers are with you. Nancy and Ronald Reagan.
Like Robert Kennedy, President Kennedy had his admirers and his critics, which, at times, crossed party lines. Fellow Democrat and former President Harry Truman stated in a letter to Dean Acheson September 25, 1961:
You must remember that our head of state is young, inexperienced and hopeful. Let's hope the hopeful works…
Future two-term Republican President Ronald Reagan, in a 1967 letter as governor, was critical of then-President Lyndon Johnson:
I really don't know the answer to your question about our course if President Kennedy had continued. I do know I thought him a much more intelligent and perceptive man than the present President.
But Kennedy's Republican predecessor, Dwight Eisenhower, writing on November 4, 1963, just eighteen days before the tragedy at Dallas, had little praise for JFK:
…a number of people have taken Kennedy's re-election as a foregone conclusion – I personally have never agreed to this. On the contrary, I have publicly and privately told people that I believe the present administration has been so filled with errors and blunders and mismanagement that if the entire story can be placed before the public in persuasive fashion, the defeat of the 'new frontier' ought to be completely feasible.
Certainly Kennedy was saddled by the debate over his intentions in Vietnam, the Bay of Pigs, his youth and a host of other negatives. But just as strong are memories of his facing up to Khrushchev in Cuba, his tremendous international appeal which culminated in his celebrated "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech in 1963, and his uncanny prediction that America would land a man on the moon before 1970.
Against everything else, however, what is remembered perhaps most of all is the Kennedy mystique and charm. JFK also had a sense of humor, even laughing at death, having cheated it so many times since that black night on PT-109. It was widely reported in 1983, on the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of the assassination, that President Kennedy had made a home movie depicting his own death just two months before his trip to Dallas, with the President going so far as to clutch at his chest, falling flat on the ground, with a gush of red surging from his mouth and covering his sport shirt. A sad and tragic irony to be sure, for no one was prepared for November 22.
Yes, 1993 was a year when we buried John Kennedy once again. But it was also a special and unique time to reflect on his life through the allure and contribution of letters, one of the most revealing windows we have to history.
Originally published in INSIDER'S REPORT, December, 1993.
Beauty and the "Beast of Buffalo": The Intimate Letters of Grover Cleveland to his Bride-to-BeBenjamin Shapell
In the last issue of Insider's Report, our cover story explored, through the written words of the Presidents themselves, the many different emotions felt by incoming and outgoing Chief Executives during the transfer of executive power. We shared with you Washington's humility in not wanting the job of President, as well as Theodore Roosevelt's scolding his tailors for not having his inauguration suit completed on time.
We noted, too, how some departing Presidents expressed feelings of relief, peaceful acquiescence, and even satisfaction as they left the Presidency. Benjamin Harrison wrote that his one term in office felt more like ten years. Harrison's sense of relief is mirrored by another Grover Cleveland ALS we acquired shortly after the last issue was published. Writing to a friend on December 15, 1888, following his defeat in his second bid for the Presidency, Cleveland comments that he shall be a happy man come March 5, his first day of freedom." Just four years before, however, as he assumed office for the first time on March 4, 1885, Cleveland was a happy man in a different sense. Cleveland's first hundred days of his first term, normally a politically trying time for any new administration, were spared of any major political tests, and were occupied by matters of a pleasant and personal nature – namely his courtship [of] and engagement to Frances Folsom, who would become, at the age of 21, the youngest First Lady in U.S. history.1 On that happy note, we are pleased to share our recent acquisition of perhaps the greatest cache ever discovered of unpublished love letters written by a President while in office.
These intimate letters express Cleveland's innermost thoughts on the responsibilities and frustrations of the Presidency, as well as his almost obsessive attempt to shield his wife-to-be from those same frustrations which surround the First Family. As did our Cleveland letter of December 15, 1888, this group of letters reveals a President fiercely, almost defiantly, protective of his privacy, as we shall see. Before we do, though, a little introduction is in order.
Grover Cleveland married young Frances Folsom when he was 49 years old, the oldest President ever to marry for the first time. She was only 21. They were married for 22 years when he died in 1908. Though he married late, it was not due to a fear of matrimony, unlike one of his predecessors, President Martin Van Buren, who wrote to a friend on March 26, 1838: "I am quite lonesome since you left and therefore that much more exposed to the greatest of all dangers, matrimony, but I hope I shall have firmness enough to keep my legs." No, Cleveland didn't view matrimony as a danger; it was more a question of finding the right partner. Dubbed the "Beast of Buffalo" by his political enemies during his year as mayor of Buffalo, often grumpy Cleveland found in Frances the passion and other fine qualities he was looking for. The romance of The Beast of Buffalo and the beautiful Frances was a love story along the same lines, perhaps, as those of Harry Truman and Bess, or even Ronald Reagan and Nancy.
Cleveland's confidence in selecting Frances can likely be attributed to the fact that he had known her for a long time. In fact, he met his future wife shortly after she was born. Her father, Oscar Folsom, was Cleveland's law partner in Buffalo, and the two families were very close. When Frances was 11 years old, Folsom died in a carriage accident, and the court appointed Cleveland administrator of his estate when it was discovered that Folsom had died without a will. This brought Cleveland into still more contact with young Frances, who would often visit his office, where he would assign her legal documents to copy. Cleveland took a keen interest in his ward's upbringing, and continued to buy her numerous gifts, including a horse and buggy.
Later, Frances attended Wells College in Aurora, New York, and when Cleveland became Governor, both she and her mother were frequent guests in Albany. Mother and daughter also attended Cleveland's first inauguration as President in 1885. Sometime while she was in college, their feelings for each other took a romantic turn. By August, "Uncle Cleve" and "Frank," as they affectionately called one another, were secretly engaged, though they did not announce their engagement until ten months later, just five days before their June 2, 1886, wedding.
Cleveland's impending married life seemed to turn him inward, with familial privacy becoming an almost obsessive preoccupation. The task of bringing a new wife into an imposing White House presented a great challenge to the President. He became a defiant man in an otherwise humbling office. After having served as President for nine months, he knew what awaited him and his bride-to-be over the next four years, and Cleveland fought fiercely to shield his wife from a "huntdown by the press animals of a defenceless girl."
Allan Nevins, in his Pullitzer Prize-winning biography, observed that Cleveland had a dual personality. "To the end of his life," wrote Nevins, "his intimates were struck by the gulf which separated the exuberant, jovial Cleveland of occasional hours of carefree banter, and the stern, unbending Cleveland of work and responsibility, whose life seemed hung round by a pall of duty." In these letters, we see precisely what Nevins was referring to. As President, Cleveland could be unsparingly critical and greatly frustrated in his position at times, and he was forever apologetic to his young wife for thrusting her so suddenly into the public eye.
These intimate letters of Grover and Frances should not be taken for granted; rarely do letters of so personal a nature surface in the marketplace. They are, indeed, a rare spectacle. Even when a President was prolific in his letter writing, we don't see letters of this type. George Washington might have written tens of thousands of letters, but his personal letters to Martha are not only unobtainable, they are virtually nonexistent. After his death, his wife, possibly as a possessive reaction to having been forced to share her husband so extensively with the public, burned their letters to each other.
Harry Truman, similarly enjoyed picking up the pen. Bess Truman, however, didn't wait as long as Martha Washington – she started burning their letters when Harry became President. Luckily, Bess couldn't get to them all; Harry wrote such a voluminous number. Though many survive today, they are not likely to appear on the market, having been firmly locked away at the Truman Library in Independence, Missouri.
The five letters from Grover Cleveland to his young fiancée are handwritten on quarto and octavo-size Executive Mansion stationery, and signed simply "G.C.", with some running as many as four closely-written pages. The letters are dated December 6, 1885; December 13, 1885; April 26, 1886; May 23, 1886 and May 28, 1886 (just five days before the wedding). In essence, all are apologetic in tone, exhibiting Cleveland's commitment to his responsibilities as President on the one hand, and on the other hand revealing his fear of the toll the Presidency might take on a couple just starting out: "And when I think of bringing my Darling here to have her clear life repressed and perplexed by the dreadful things which surround me, I sometimes come pretty near asking myself if it is right…", Cleveland laments in the first letter. He reminds her later in the same letter that his duties "will so fill my mind and thoughts that I shall hardly have a chance to think of my Darling who though in the same house with me will be so far away."
Further on, he regrets the fact that perhaps she is being cheated out of a normal life because he can't be like the other new husbands that they meet: "Sometimes you may see young wives with young husbands who may receive more constant attentions than you will receive at my hands."
In the next letter, dated December 13, 1885, Cleveland again makes reference to Frank's innocence and puts her youth in historic perspective: "I guess there never was anyone so young and so unused to such responsibilities, who occupied the place before; and my anxiety is, my darling child, that you should be as well prepared as it is possible to meet and carry with the least trouble and annoyance all that is before you."
He entertains a possible solution to improving their privacy and overcoming the isolation of their large house: "I have been thinking a good deal lately how nice it would be to have a little home a few miles away and live there – coming into the White House at regular times and having all the official business here, but having a place where it should not enter, and where the President and his family could live like other people." This was a startling and radical notion by Cleveland, for although there is no constitutional requirement that the President live in the White House, no President before him had ever attempted to live away. The idea of separating his house from the White House only reaffirms Cleveland's protectiveness of both his bride-to-be and his assuredness of a happy marriage. Indeed, he and Frances did live elsewhere – in Northwest Washington – as often as they could, until the end of his second term in 1897.
Here we see a President, not even yet married, planning the course of his life and in many ways predicting the course of events, as if he and Frances had already lived in the White House for some time. Later in his December 13 letter, only nine months into his first term, Cleveland already looks forward to his retirement, still a distant three and one-half years away. "I am glad you contemplate paying a little attention to the science of hen raising – for I don't know what else we can do when we quit here – and it's only a little over three years now. We must be very frugal and saving because I suppose there is no way for an Ex-President to save money." The implications about his job are astounding; imagine a President counting the days before he leaves the Presidency with his wife-to-be – when his term has only just begun.
The last three letters Cleveland wrote to Frances before their wedding further evidence his deep concern for her happiness as last minute preparations for the wedding are made. In his April 26, 1886 letter, Cleveland suggests that they might invite more family and friends, as well as the Cabinet's families, to the wedding, if she thinks it best. Then, following Frances' grandfather's death, the President writes to her on May 23, 1886, concerned that she might wish to postpone the wedding, under the circumstances. "I feel that everything is in abeyance till I know or someone for me knows how my Sweet Pet will look upon the subject of so much planning, in the light of the changed circumstances. Everything shall be as you desire; and yet I know, Darling, that you will want to know a little of what has been passing in my mind."
Finally, on May 28, after keeping the wedding a secret for 10 months, Cleveland writes to Frank that he has leaked the news of their impending nuptials to a number of people, and that the papers will the next day "tell as much in an authoritative way as I think the people ought to know at present."
Five days later, on June 2, 1886, the Clevelands were married (theirs remains the only Presidential wedding to have taken place in the White House). There was a national obsession with Frances, with some saying that her wedding to Cleveland was the closest event in Presidential history to a marriage in the British royal family.
President and Mrs. Cleveland went on to raise five children together and, after becoming the only First Lady to serve two non-consecutive administrations, she became the first Presidential widow to remarry – in 1913, five years after Cleveland's death. When Frances died in 1947, she was buried next to the President at Princeton, according to her wishes.
What we discover in these rare and revealing letters is that Grover Cleveland was, after all, a human being, doing his best to lead as normal a life as possible under the circumstances. Cleveland was determined from the very beginning to set the stage and establish reasonable ground rules for the achievement of his two primary lifetime goals: to be President of the United States, and a devoted and thoughtful husband.
We who love autographs occasionally hit upon a lucky find, and these Cleveland letters, like Harry Truman's to Bess, are truly exceptional. To us, these national treasures are like windows which allow us a glimpse into the true realm of private thoughts and feelings which Presidents usually reserve for just a privileged few.
Originally Published in INSIDER'S REPORT, June, 1993.
Kennedy-Clinton WatchBenjamin Shapell
In June of 1963, when Bill Clinton was 16 year old, he made a trip to the White House as part of an Arkansas youth delegation. It was there that he shook hands with President John F. Kennedy in the Rose Garden, an event which would become a pivotal point in his life and character. During the 1992 Presidential campaign, it was said that Clinton's pursuit of public office and, ultimately, the Presidency, was largely inspired by that historic handshake.
Following his strong showing in the New Hampshire primary in February of 1992, Clinton became a serious candidate and adopted a noticeably Kennedy-esque style, both in his speech and mannerisms. As the year progressed, more and more similarities between the two men seemed to emerge, prompting us to wonder if America had stumbled upon a JFK clone.
How much was Bill Clinton really influenced by Kennedy's style, words and actions? Is Clinton really his own man, or does he rely (perhaps too much) on JFK's aura? If so, he wouldn't be the first. George Bush tried to portray Dan Quayle as the Republican JFK, and failed miserably. Was Clinton's apparent imitation of the Kennedy style more a sign of deep respect or just a vote-winning scheme designed to evoke memories of JFK and the hope he inspired in our nation over three decades ago? And, now that he has been elected, is Clinton continuing to emulate Kennedy's political success by riding on the coattails of the former President's legendary mystique: handsome, intelligent, respected, youthful and charismatic? Is it a wise strategy? Has it helped him so far?
We've made quite a few observations on the parallels between Presidents Kennedy and Clinton and feel like recording some of these similarities. So, on the 30th anniversary of Clinton's famous handshake, we inaugurate this first edition of our Kennedy-Clinton Watch column. So many examples can be gathered from the period surrounding the campaign and inauguration alone, in fact, that we will have to reserve some of them for future issues of Insider's Report, along with updates on the latest and most timely similarities we discover.
Perhaps the most unfortunate similarity between the Kennedy and Clinton presidencies is the fact that both suffered damaging defeats within the first 100 days in office. On April 19, 1961, John Kennedy was sent reeling by the fiasco at the Bay of Pigs. The White House issued a statement that President Kennedy bore sole responsibility and Kennedy, himself, was adamantly opposed to any attempts to shift the responsibility from his shoulders. Coincidentally, on April 19, 1993, in the wake of the Branch Davidian compound conflagration in Waco, Texas, President Clinton took full responsibility, deflecting any criticism away from his Attorney General. In the aftermath of these tragic events, both administrations were plagued early on with the image of failure in the public's view.
On a lighter note, we offer the following seemingly intentional parallels, as well as some unintentional coincidences between the two Presidents:
ON December 18, 1992, The Wall Street Journal reported that 43% of those polled said that the President of whom Bill Clinton most reminds them is JFK – more than any other President.
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JANUARY 17, 1993: ABC News. Three days before taking the oath of office, President-elect Bill Clinton spoke at the Lincoln Memorial:
Kennedy (opening remarks of his 1961 Inaugural Address): "We observe today not a victory of party but a celebration of freedom.
Clinton: "We come here today to reclaim our country for the American people. To celebrate not a victory of party or persons but the common ground we call America."
January 20, 1993: Given the generational parallels Clinton draws with Kennedy, as well as sharing the ideals of generational renewal and public service, it would probably be a safe bet that Clinton would have carefully studied President Kennedy's Inaugural Address. Paying a visit to Kennedy's grave at Arlington Cemetery just hours before his inaugural address, he paused to read quotations from Kennedy's inaugural engraved in marble and seemed to know them by heart. But in the wake of his 1600-word, 14 minute speech (mirroring Kennedy's 11 minute, 1350-word speech, two of the shortest on record), perhaps he studied it a bit too carefully…
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ON Bill Clinton's Inauguration Day, January 20, 1993, ABC-TV's "World News Tonight" observed: "If Bill Clinton's first Presidential speech had a familiar ring, it was clearly by design. The man who said his life in politics was inspired by his meeting with John Kennedy echoed JFK's 1961 inaugural, in tone and in substance";
(Kennedy): "Let the word go forth from this time and place…that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans."
(Clinton): "I challenge a new generation of young Americans to a season of service."
(Kennedy): "Let us begin."
(Clinton): "Let us begin anew, with energy and hope."
"At times," it was noted, "he even seemed to be answering Kennedy across the generations":
(Kennedy): "Now the trumpet summons us again."
(Clinton): We have heard the trumpets; we have changed the guard."
Clinton borrowed more than just a few words from Kennedy's famous inaugural address. Like Kennedy, he declared that Americans must accept sacrifice to secure their future. And Clinton's address, as did Kennedy's three decades before it, guaranteed only struggle, not reward:
(Kennedy): "And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country."
(Clinton): "My fellow Americans, you, too, must play your part in our renewal."
In concluding its commentary, ABC News remarked: "The themes of renewal and sacrifice and hope are common to almost all inaugurals, but the heavy Kennedy echo in Mr. Clinton's first Presidential address suggests that in matters of formal rhetoric, the new President is still looking for his own voice."
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PERHAPS looking for a Kennedy-esque, "Ask Not" 'soundbite' of his own, Clinton remarked: "There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America."
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GARRY Wills, writing in The Los Angeles Times on January 24, 1993, also picked up on the parallels between Clinton's and Kennedy's respective addresses, both of which shared the theme of the passing of the torch to a new generation. Clinton spoke of a generation raised in the shadows of the cold War (a war which had been fought before he was born). Kennedy spoke for a generation "born in this century," a clear reference to his predecessor's age. Dwight Eisenhower had been born in 1890; Kennedy was the first president born in the twentieth century.
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AT his 1961 inauguration, President Kennedy issued a "call to arms" for the new generation of Americans, asking them to do their part "to assure the survival and the success of liberty." On February 16, 1993, President Clinton used similar words as he spoke about the economy: "If you will join with me, we can create an economy in which all Americans work hard and prosper. This is nothing less than a call to arms to restore the vitality of the American dream."
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JOHN Kennedy reminded us that the arts are an essential part of life. At his inauguration he asked Robert Frost to read a poem, and invited more than 50 of the country's outstanding writers, artists and composers to attend the ceremonies. Bill Clinton, even as Governor of Arkansas, has expressed his belief that each child conceals an original and passionate voice and that by offering the arts freely to every child everywhere, "we invest in our future as a country." Maya Angelou, at Bill Clinton's request, was the first poet since Robert Frost to read at a Presidential inauguration.
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ON March 2, 1993, President Clinton unveiled his plan to implement his most-applauded campaign promise: to provide universal college scholarships to be repaid by public service. Borrowing liberally from the legacy of John F. Kennedy's Peace Corps, another distinctly generational call to service, Clinton's introduction of the program was timed to coincide with the 32nd anniversary of the Corps. In his speech, Clinton recalled: "For many in my own generation, the summons to citizenship and service came on this day, 32 years ago."
The Los Angeles Times observed: "To emphasize the parallel between this program and President John F. Kennedy's Peace Corps, Clinton brought along a contingent of figures associated with that effort: Sargent Shriver, the Peace Corps' first director; Sen. Harris Wofford (D-Pa.) and Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), a former Peace Corps volunteer. Also present was Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass), a longtime advocate of such programs."
In his 1960 campaign, John F. Kennedy promised to end discrimination against blacks and later, as President, proceeded to put forth civil rights legislation. In a similar move, Clinton, in his espousal of gay rights, promised to lift the military's ban on gays in the armed forces. Echoing Kennedy, he recently stated: "We should try to protect the rights of American individual citizens to live up to the fullest of their capacities."
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THE Clinton administration has announced that the United States will continue, despite governmental budget cuts affecting all areas of the economy, to pursue plans to have astronauts living in space by the year 2000. In a special message to Congress on May 25, 1961, President Kennedy stated: "I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth."
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WITH the retirement of Supreme Court Justice Byron White, Bill Clinton has an opportunity to appoint a Justice. During an Oval Office chat, TIME Magazine (March 29, 1993) reported that the two men "shared in particular a deep admiration for President Kennedy, who had inspired Clinton with a desire to go into politics when he was a young student." Interestingly, Byron White was Kennedy's first appointee to the Court in 1962, and White's departure this year will facilitate Clinton's first Supreme Court appointment.
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ON March 11, 1993, The Wall Street Journal reported President Clinton's nomination of Jean Kennedy Smith (the sister of President John F. Kennedy) as ambassador in Ireland. In 1961, President Kennedy appointed his own brother Attorney General; now President Clinton has appointed a Kennedy sister to a major government position.
PRESIDENT Kennedy was known for appointing "the best and the brightest " to government service. The February 5, 1993 Wall Street Journal reports that Clinton seems to be following his lead, even recruiting from the same source. "Rhodes scholars in the Clinton administration already total about 20, exceeding the 13 in the Kennedy administration."
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IT is also interesting to note that Secretary of Defense Les Aspin came to the Pentagon as one of Robert McNamara's whiz kids, the latter having served as Secretary of Defense under President Kennedy. And, like McNamara, Aspin was a business executive prior to his elevation to government service.
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DURING the Vice Presidential debates in 1988, Lloyd Bentsen's fierce loyalty to John Kennedy and the years they served together in Congress caught Dan Quayle by surprise ("Senator, you're no John Kennedy!"). But it certainly didn't go unnoticed by Bill Clinton, who appointed Bentsen Secretary of the Treasury.
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DAVID Wilhelm was confirmed in January, 1993, as the chairman of the Democratic Party. As reported by the media, he was the youngest Democratic National Chairman "since the Kennedy era."
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BILL Clinton was the first nominee to appear at the Democratic Convention before his acceptance speech since John F. Kennedy.
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KENNEDY and Clinton shared a common love and respect for Thomas Jefferson. Clinton once made the comment that as he gazes from the White House toward the Jefferson Memorial he wishes that Thomas Jefferson could come alive and talk to him about the problems he faces today.
Clinton began the inaugural week at Monticello. During the discussion that followed outside the home, one child asked Clinton how he would utilize Jefferson if he were alive today. Clinton first said that he would suggest to Vice President Gore that the two of them resign in favor of Jefferson. A moment later, however, Clinton amended that to say that he would ask Jefferson to be his Secretary of Education.
President Kennedy, giving a toast to a gathering of 49 Nobel Prize winners at the White House on April 29, 1962, was perhaps more profound but no less sincere: "I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent of human knowledge that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined here alone."
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ON a state visit to Paris on May 31, 1961, Kennedy jokingly assumed a secondary role when he introduced himself at a news conference as "the man who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris." Recently, President Clinton spoke at Santa Monica College to an audience that included students, as well as a number of show business celebrities. Clinton surveyed the crowd and got a laugh when he lightheartedly introduced Bill Cosby, "who makes me the second-most famous person in the room."
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MARCH 22, 1993: Newsweek Magazine. "Since his first Saturday radio address from an empty Oval Office was 'kind of flat,' aides are now packing the room with White House staffers, federal workers and their families. The technique worked like a charm. "He just punched the hell out of it," says an aide. Clinton chatted up the crowd beforehand, showing off the desk that once belonged to John F. Kennedy and giving a quick history of the paintings and artifacts in the office.
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JANUARY 2, 1993: Los Angeles Times. "President-elect Bill Clinton marked the new year with a touch football game on the beach Saturday." As we all know, the Kennedys were famous for their own touch football games at the family compound at Hyannis Port, Massachusetts. U.S. News & World Report noted that Bill Clinton was only 14 when Kennedy was elected and was playing touch football with a friend in Little Rock.
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JOHN Kennedy was the first Roman Catholic President. Bill Clinton is the first President to have graduated from a Roman Catholic college (Washington's D.C.'s Georgetown University), although Clinton, who entered college the year after Kennedy's assassination, is a Baptist.
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DURING the first Presidential debate, the October 19, 1992 issue of TIME Magazine observed: "As with John Kennedy (whom he shamelessly imitated by saying 'We can do better and we must'), the lasting impression of Clinton was his vigorous, confident demeanor and his often bemused attitude toward Bush." Kennedy's lasting impression in his debates with Nixon in 1960 propelled him to victory that November.
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ON November 5, 1992, USA Today noted: "Clinton, in the cadences of his voice, the wry humor, reminds many of President Kennedy… Like Kennedy, he delights in grappling with the media." The Los Angeles Times reported on January 3, 1993, that "Bill Clinton inherits some of the same positives that were at the feet of Jack Kennedy in 1960."
IT has happened only 20 times in the 204 years since Washington's inauguration – a new President succeeding the leader of an opposing political party. On January 20, 1993, Democrat Clinton succeeded Republican George Bush. Exactly thirty-two years before him, Democrat John F. Kennedy succeeded Republican Dwight Eisenhower.
INTERESTING parallels exist between the political careers of Kennedy and Clinton. Both men were elected to important public offices at an early age. Kennedy was elected to Congress at 29, and to the Senate at 35, before becoming President at 43. Clinton, elected Governor of Arkansas at the age of 32, was the state's youngest governor ever, and was elected to the Presidency when he was 46. Kennedy and Clinton were the second and third youngest Presidents, respectively.
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IN 1963, at the time of their historic meeting in the White House's Rose Garden, Kennedy was the same age that Clinton (46) would be during his Presidential run.
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THOUGH a complete coincidence, B-i-l-l C-l-i-n-t-o-n and J-o-h-n K-e-n-n-e-d-y contain the same number of letters, both in the first and last names.
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THE dawn of the Kennedy era was a wonderful time for Wall Street, at least early on, producing a Kennedy-style bull market. By May, 1993, only four months into Clinton's term, the Dow Jones hit an all time high.
We have now reached a Clinton milestone – the first 100 days of his administration. Presidents are inevitably judged by events and deadlines, with the first 100 days serving as a barometer for the success or failure of a Presidency. By all accounts, President Clinton still has his work cut out for him, as his first 100 days have been plagued with problems – Waco, Bosnia and the budget, to name a few. As a consequence, the Clinton administration is facing its lowest approval ratings ever. According to a recent poll, only 36% of the public approves of Clinton's handling of his job, a record low, going back 50 years, for a post-war President four months into his first term.
Arthur Schles[s]inger recently remarked that the first 100 days tell the people a good deal about a new President, and tell him a good deal about the people. Clinton's steadily declining popularity is certainly telling him a lot about the mood of the American people, but we're still having a hard time figuring him out. He has been characterized as unfocused, indecisive, over-cautious and evasive, among other things, and it's sometimes hard to tell if he's his own man, if he's simply acting the part of President. Has Clinton been trying too hard to re-enact the Presidency of John Kennedy at the expense of being his own man? If JFK has been his role model during his first 100 days, then perhaps he'd be wise to change his strategy. We can only wait and see.
Originally published in INSIDER'S REPORT, June, 1993.