Wednesday, January 21, 2009

To smile or not to smile...

Click on the picture to see it full-size.

On Tuesday, January 20, I opened my newspaper to this picture of all 44 U.S. presidents. What struck me, as it did when I first saw the portrait, is that President Obama's official White House portrait is unsmiling. It isn't that he looks dour, displeased or dyspeptic, but he looks serious.

In the early years of our republic some of the presidents looked downright grumpy. William Henry Harrison, #9, or #12, Zachary Taylor, have expressions that look like they've been sucking lemons. The newspaper spread shows that up until Richard Nixon--Nixon! of all people--presidents kept a straight face in their portraits. Nixon's picture has him grinning like a loon. I don't know that I ever actually saw Richard Nixon smile, and when I saw him I didn't do any smiling. From Nixon, #37, through George W. Bush, #43, all of the portraits are of smiling men. Jimmy Carter has a good and toothsome smile. Bill Clinton looks like he's thinking of sharing a cigar in the Oval Office with Monica Lewinsky. Ronald Reagan was an actor, easy for him to put on a mood. George H. W. Bush looks like he's laughing, Gerald Ford like he just heard a joke he didn't quite get, and George W. Bush looks like Alfred E. Neuman.

If you look at old pictures you hardly ever see anyone smiling. Some of the presidential portraits were painted, and some were from tintypes, both of which depended on the subject sitting still for a long period of time. No wonder they looked so straight-faced. I also think it had something to do with a public perception of the presidency as being a serious job. I'm sure there's time for joy, but also a lot of stress and periods where you wouldn't find a bunch of people sitting around swapping jokes and laughing it up.

When I watched the Inaugural ceremonies yesterday I saw President Obama smile many times, and he has a wonderful and incandescent smile. But I think he knew at the time of his official portrait that he had some serious business ahead of him. Perhaps that was why he broke the tradition of his predecessors going back over 40 years, and put on his serious face.

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