Monday, October 27, 2008

When Did Presidents Start Smiling?

I have a ruler in my desk that features the portraits of all the Presidents of the USA. The Presidents of the late 20th century seem to be much happier than the grim-faced leaders of previous decades. Not really sure why since there seems to be as many worries now as then. This casual observation made me wonder "At what point in history did Presidents start smiling?"

I cannot fix a watershed moment when Presidential portraiture seems to lose it gravitas and devolve into a class yearbook. On my ruler, there's a noticeable change from LBJ with his hound dog visage to Nixon's toothy grin so large that he seems to be losing a set of false choppers. This is not the moment though as there are definite smilers predating LBJ.

I realize that other factors are at work such as the style of portraiture and the nature of early photographs that required long exposure. The state of dental care may have had something to with it. Who really wants to see Washington's (wooden?) teeth?

Of course, the picture used for each president can make a difference. My promotional ruler from Workmen's Insurance Group cannot be considered the official cannon of Presidential portraits. So, I have decided to search in the field like an archaeologist. I have been looking for the earliest appearance of a Presidential smile. Smiles should not be confused with their genetic cousins the "smirk" or "grimace." Likewise, one must be careful not to confuse a posed smile with a candid moment of laughter.

For instance, there is this photo of Teddy Roosevelt that has become the quintessential image of TR. It is the template for caricatures and clip art of Teddy. Yet, this photo is uncommon. It's an unguarded moment. Probably taken after someone told Ol' Ted a knee-slapping joke about how many Spaniards it takes to screw in a light bulb. (Wait, did they have light bulbs then?) This photo is not the "pose for the camera portraiture" similar to modern portraits of Presidents. TR is much more serious in his official state sanctioned White House photos.

I will rule out Teddy, but perhaps TR is a benchmark for the quest. There is very scant eveidence of a smiling Commander-in-Chief before TR. Certainly not in the official portraiture. (Although the case can be made that James Buchanan is smirking. He is the only bachelor president, but I don't know if that has any relevance.) Tracking the history from TR takes us into the 20th century and we can narrow the range to the early half of the 20th century since Nixon and Reagan are always smiling and all the others have followed suit. So, who among the 20th century Presidents is the first smiler?

William Howard Taft

What about Taft? He's fat so he ought to be jolly, right? That is the stereotype, yes? If he was jolly, he kept it off-camera. It's hard to tell if Taft is even smirking with his handlebar mustache in the way. He is the last President to sport facial hair by the way - unless you count eyebrows as facial hair.

I can understand why Taft may not have been so jolly. He probably did not feel too much like smiling after getting stuck in the bathtub of the White House. No, Taft doesn't really smile but he makes us smile. For example, before weighing in as President, Taft weighed in as Governor of the Philippines at a healthy fighting weight of 350 lbs. One day he sent a telegraph (that's a form of early email) to Secretary of State Elihu Root, "Rode forty miles on horseback today; feeling fine." Root wired back, "Glad you are feeling fine; how is the horse?" I love it that the Secretary of State has a sense of humor.

The search will continue . . . .

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