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Executive Images

To assemble "The American Presidency" exhibition, experts scour a treasure trove of historic pictures

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 For "The American Presidency," Kreiss and colleagues Carrie Bruns, Shannon Perich and Sue Ostroff dug up some 400 photographs, engravings and lithographs to accompany a plethora of Presidential artifacts, such as the lap desk on which Thomas Jefferson penned the Declaration of Independence, Lincoln’s top hat, a bullet-pierced eyeglass case that saved Theodore Roosevelt’s life when it deflected an assassin’s bullet, a filing cabinet—its drawers crudely crowbarred open—from Richard Nixon’s scandals, and even Warren Harding’s monogrammed silk pajamas.

At the behest of Smithsonian Secretary Lawrence Small, the exhibition was put together in eight months; normally it would take at least three years. Fortunately, most of the 900 objects in the show were in the Smithsonian’s legendary "attic." And about 80 percent of the photographs are from Smithsonian repositories.

A couple of hours poring over old photographs sounds like fun to me. Kreiss says you come across some great things you weren’t looking for.

While she was scouring the National Archives on a project for the Women’s Museum in Dallas, she turned up some 1920s photographs predicting what women would be wearing in 2000: "soft metal" dresses, frocks with built-in wings for flying, and electric coats. Kreiss took me on a tour of "The American Presidency" to show me some of the photographic gems that bring the exhibition together. What fascinated me was the imaginative use made of some pictures. A shot of Harry Truman on a whistle-stop train tour was blown up to life-size and curved to look just like the real thing.

The original print of James Buchanan taking the oath of office outside the Capitol in 1857, the oldest known photograph of a Presidential inauguration, is here in a glass case. The print is very fragile and will be removed from the display and replaced by a durable modern copy.

I was equally taken with a grand indoor scene: an image of the old Pension Building, now the National Building Museum, all rigged out for William McKinley’s inaugural ball in 1901. Equipped with electricity for the first time, the place is ablaze with strings and spirals of brilliant lights, making the enormous columns shine.

An alcove of the exhibition devoted to life in the White House is sure to please youngsters with its display of such personal items as an 1829 bisque doll belonging to John Quincy Adams’ granddaughter, the elaborate dollhouses of Jimmy Carter’s daughter, Amy, and Grover Cleveland’s children, a découpaged paint box, pointe shoes and a chess set. The photographs accompanying this section enhance the domestic setting: there are pictures of Commanders in Chief cuddling their grandchildren, of Lincoln reading to his son Tad, and of children having a snowball fight on the White House lawn. And, of course, there’s that charming picture of John Kennedy, Jr., playing under his father’s desk.

"Many of these pictures are from Presidential libraries," Kreiss said. "The hardest to get were of Chelsea. The Clintons really protected her."

But apparently some Presidents are less concerned about their privacy: here also is a picture of Lyndon Johnson conducting a staff meeting from his bed, a habit of his, Kreiss said.

 Occasionally, certain photographs prove to be elusive, even though everyone thinks they’ve seen them everywhere. "We needed a shot of Franklin Roosevelt with his dog Fala," Kreiss said. "Easy, we thought. But the National Archives didn’t have one. We called the wire services. Nope. The Roosevelt Presidential Library had a picture but couldn’t give us permission to use it. We finally found a copy at one of the big stock houses that lend commercially."

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