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12 For a century before the 1890s, when Thomas Edison produced his first moving picture and William McKinley became the first president to be filmed, the president of the United States was being primed for his debut in the movie spotlight. This preparation came about through a series of developments that defined how the presidency was to be performed. On the speaker’s rostrum , at social occasions, in theater boxes, and even on vacation, the president became a cultural performer, a figure who at times transcended politics. During the nineteenth century, professional performing artists were earning increased status and prestige among Americans. At the same time, presidents were more frequently likened to these performers. This entwining of the president and the performing artist accelerated during the early twentieth century, in part due to the efforts of a new class of professional manipulators of public opinion—but the trend also illustrated how the two cultural institutions spoke similarly to the desires and aspirations of the American people. The Constitution, a mechanistic and legalistic document, enumerated the basic powers of the new presidency but left almost everything else out. As in the rest of the document, the vagueness of Article II was pragmatic— intended to help ensure its ratification by the states—but it also illustrated C H A P T E R 1  “THE TORMENTS OF DESIRE” presidents and performance before 1929 “the torments of desire” 13 the framers’ conviction that the new federal government would “go of itself” and naturally develop its own traditions.1 Some of the Founders, though, most notably John Adams, looked to the past for models of presidential behavior. The president, Adams thought, ought to be the New World’s version of royalty. At the other extreme, antifederalists such as George Mason and Patrick Henry hoped that the sovereignty of the states would check all federal power, and in particular render the chief executive a figurehead. It is well known that this ambiguity about the nature of the presidency heavily burdened the office’s first occupant. George Washington, first president by acclamation, lived in fear of making the wrong decisions—of saddling his successors with disastrous procedural and substantive precedents, landing the new government in the middle of the next European war, and above all dying in office and initiating a possible hereditary presidencycum -monarchy. Serving at a time when transportation and communication had barely progressed beyond medieval conditions, Washington worked in the capital cities of New York and Philadelphia, out of the view of almost all citizens. Most of his presidential “firsts” were set down in writing. He created the military and civilian machinery of the federal government, but it was small and thinly distributed across the vast new nation. While citizens across America memorialized Washington in portraits, allegories, woodcuts, and statues, they barely noticed much of his actual work as president. Nevertheless, even in this dark age, more than a century before electronic communications became the norm, George Washington also established the visual component of the presidency. Inspired by colonial and European tradition and motivated by the challenges of his office, Washington exploited the unique impact of the physical presence of the chief executive on the political process. He thus originated “presidential performance” in its most literal sense. The Virginian had been thrust into positions of leadership since early adulthood. More than any other Founding Father, therefore, Washington felt in his bones what Adams had grasped only intellectually: that he, as the first president, was a kinglike embodiment of the hopes and values of the new nation. Medieval European rulers, drawing upon religious imagery of the Christian church as the ever-vital body of Christ on Earth, began to proclaim their own bodies to be extensions of their kingdoms, and vice versa. Since the mid- 14 the leading man 1600s, Louis XIV, Frederick the Great, and other would-be “absolute monarchs ” had spent lavishly to enshrine their images in the perceived heart of their lands, through art, architecture, and regular ritual.2 George Washington ’s experiences in the colonies and during the Revolution were humbler, but they taught him the value of this mystical aspect of the leader’s presence among his people. Through calculated self-presentation, Washington established such a presence among his fellows. Circumstance and luck helped to define his leader’s profile as well. In 1775, as the first and as yet the only member of the Continental Army, Washington purposely strode down the...


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