Presidential Exhibits at the National Archives

Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English. I’m Faith Lapidus.

And I’m Bob Doughty. Today we visit the National Archives for some presidential history.

President George W. Bush will begin his second term on Inauguration Day, January twentieth. But Inauguration Day has not always taken place on this date in wintertime.

George Washington gave the nation’s first presidential swearing-in speech in the spring. He spoke on April thirtieth, seventeen eighty-nine, in New York City.

Part of Washington's handwritten speech will be shown at the National Archives, in the city named in his honor, this week through January twenty-fifth. Visitors can see the first and last pages of the speech. They can also see the Bible on which he placed his hand during the swearing-in ceremony.

George Washington had led the American colonies to freedom from England in the Revolutionary War. Now he spoke of what he called the “difficulty of the trust to which the voice of my country called me.” He also pointed out that as the first president of the United States, he had no example to follow. Years later, America’s thirty-third president, Harry Truman, recognized an example of what the job was like. Being president, Truman said, was like riding a tiger.

Now he and others who rode that tiger are the subjects of a collection of presidential photographs at the National Archives. Some pictures in the exhibit show the pressures of America’s highest office. Others show the pleasures of political life. Still others record family times or lighthearted moments, like Ronald Reagan enjoying a laugh on the presidential plane, Air Force One.

The exhibit is called "The American Presidency: Photographic Treasures of the National Archives." It is presented by U.S. News & World Report magazine. It is the first exhibit in the Lawrence F. O'Brien Gallery. The newly named space opened in December. Lawrence O’Brien was an adviser to presidents Kennedy and Johnson. The photographs demonstrate the development of camera art over the last one hundred fifty years. Most of the forty pictures are in black-and-white.

A photo from eighteen fifty-seven shows James Buchanan during his first year as president. The photographer was Mathew Brady, one of the nation’s first great photographers of historical subjects. Buchanan sits in a chair next to a table covered by a cloth and topped by books. A feather pen sits in ink. The chair is turned half-sideways from the camera. Buchanan has one leg crossed over the other. The nation he led was divided over slavery and the rights of states. Four years later, America was at war with itself. The slave-holding South rebelled against the Union.

Abraham Lincoln guided the nation through the Civil war. Another photo by Mathew Brady shows President Lincoln at a military camp in Antietam, Maryland, in eighteen sixty-two. Lincoln stands between two other officials. But their presence does not seem nearly as important compared to the very tall president with the very tall hat. The Civil War lasted from eighteen sixty-one until eighteen sixty-five.

William McKinley was president from eighteen ninety-seven until his death in nineteen-oh-one, when an anarchist shot him.

The National Archives exhibit shows McKinley during a visit to his hometown in Ohio. He reaches out to greet children. He looks happy and at ease. The image we see is really two pictures. These were made to be looked at side-by-side in a device called a stereoptican. This way pictures appeared to have depth.

Theodore Roosevelt followed McKinley in office. One photograph shows Teddy Roosevelt in front of a huge tree. He loved the open air and he loved to hunt. But he also recognized the need to protect wildlife and nature. During his eight years in office, he created many national forests and other protected areas.

A picture of Herbert Hoover shows him fishing in California. Another shows him speaking at a political meeting. Hoover was president from nineteen twenty-nine to nineteen thirty-three. During this time the stock market crashed. This led to a worldwide economic depression.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt followed Hoover in office. This Roosevelt was known as F.D.R. He was distantly related to Theodore. He helped raise the spirits of Americans during the worst of the Great Depression. In fact, he was elected four times. After that the Constitution was amended to set a limit of two terms.

The great camera artist Edward Steichen captured Roosevelt's face from the side. The picture is an image of strength. Yet most Americans did not know that Roosevelt needed help to walk. He was disabled by a polio infection. Pictures of him in his wheelchair or wearing leg braces were rare.

Franklin Roosevelt died unexpectedly in April of nineteen forty-five. Vice President Harry Truman became president. He led the United States through the final months of World War Two. President Truman often spoke from the back of a train as he campaigned for election in nineteen forty-eight. In one picture, he talks to a crowd at a train station in a small Southern town. Young people sit on the station roof as they listen.

Dwight Eisenhower was commanding general of the Allied forces in Europe during World War Two. He was a military hero. In nineteen fifty-two, he was elected president. A photograph in the exhibit shows President Eisenhower and his wife Mamie at a celebration of their thirty-ninth wedding anniversary. He has his arm around her shoulder. She has a bright smile on her face.

Photographer Paul Begley captured this image in the summer of nineteen fifty-five at the family's home in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. In September of that year, President Eisenhower suffered a heart attack. But he recovered and was re-elected in nineteen fifty-six.

In nineteen sixty Americans elected John Fitzgerald Kennedy. In one of the pictures at the Archives, J.F.K. watches his young daughter playing in his White House office. Caroline and her younger brother, John Junior, often provided light moments for photographers.

Another photo shows L.B.J., Lyndon Baines Johnson. Johnson took office after the murder of President Kennedy in nineteen sixty-three. In the photo President Johnson holds his dog Yuki. Both have their faces turned upward. They look like they are singing together. Johnson’s little grandson looks on in surprise.

Richard Nixon is one of the few presidents pictured in color in the exhibit. He was elected in nineteen sixty-eight.

A picture shows President Nixon with Chinese Premier Chou En-lai. The premier is showing the president how to eat with chopsticks. The photo was taken during the historic Nixon trip to China in nineteen seventy-two. That trip helped open relations between the two countries.

On August eighth, nineteen seventy-four, Richard Nixon became the only American president ever to resign. In doing so, he avoided the possibility of removal from office over charges in Congress of political crimes.

The pictures in the collection show presidents at work, at rest and at play. In three photos side-by-side, Jimmy Carter and his young daughter Amy run toward a helicopter at the White House.

Another picture shows President George H.W. Bush walking on the White House grounds. The Washington Monument stands tall in the background. This photo is from January of nineteen ninety-one, five months after Iraq invaded and occupied Kuwait. Mr. Bush appears deep in thought. He had just approved a decision to go to war.

"The American Presidency: Photographic Treasures of the National Archives" continues through February twenty-first, in Washington, D.C. Internet users can find out more at the Web site of the National Archives and Records Administration: nara.gov.

Our program was written by Jerilyn Watson and produced by Caty Weaver. I’m Faith Lapidus.

And I’m Bob Doughty. Please join us again next week for THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.