Magazine article Insight on the News

The Real West Wing

Magazine article Insight on the News

The Real West Wing

Article excerpt

While Al Gore and George Bush fight to the finish for a seat in the Oval Office, past presidents warn that life in the White House can be `hell.' A new exhibit tries to show a softer side.

When Lawrence M. Small became secretary of the Smithsonian Institution last January, he noted that the Smithsonian lacked an installation that illustrated the joys and sorrows of the nation's highest office. To remedy the situation, he ordered "The American Presidency: A Glorious Burden," a new $12 million display at the National Museum of American History.

The permanent exhibit attempts to show the flesh-and-blood aspects of the 41 men who have served as the nation's chief executive with items such as the fur top hat Abraham Lincoln wore to Ford's Theatre the night he was assassinated, and the pink peau de soie gown (embroidered with 2,000 rhinestones) that Mamie Eisenhower chose for her husband's inaugural ball.

"The circumstances of the presidency may ask human beings to act with greater than human capacities," Small says in the catalog. "So they must fall back on their humanity."

The museum succeeds in exploring the nuances and complexities of past presidents' lives with about 900 objects drawn from its political-history collection of 100,000 artifacts. The 9,000-square-foot exhibit explores their careers from historical, cultural, political and social perspectives but emphasizes their personal sides.

"The American Presidency" is a tale of life and death, of presidents frequently pulled to the breaking point of their capacities and the too-often tragedies of their deaths. Not surprisingly, the two most compelling segments (of the 11 presented) are the birth of the nation with George Washington and the assassinations of Lincoln and John F. Kennedy.

The exhibit represents Washington as a reluctant president -- "I have no lust for power," he's quoted as saying although it includes the first president's grand portrait by Gilbert Stuart and the painting of him as revolutionary general in Reviewing the Western Army at Fort Cumberland, Md. There are humbler images of his life, too -- his beloved Mount Vernon and the brass candle stand he used to work on his farewell address.

Visitors also can see Washington's sword and scabbard from the American Revolution, his general officer's uniform and the cane left to him by Benjamin Franklin. (Franklin wrote in his will, "My fine crab-tree walking stick, with gold head curiously wrought in the form of the cup of liberty, I give my friend of mankind, General Washington. If it were a Sceptre, he has merited it, and would become it. …

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