- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 18, 2000

''The American Presidency: A Glorious Burden" at the National Museum of American History shows the flesh-and-blood aspects of the 41 men who have served as the nation's chief executive.

The new $12 million installation includes 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 in 1953. You also can see Warren Harding's silk pajamas.

"The American Presidency" is the largest exhibition to illustrate the joys and sorrows of the nation's highest office. When Lawrence M. Small became secretary of the Smithsonian Institution in January, he noted that the Smithsonian lacked such a display. Mr. Small ordered that the exhibit, which is permanent, be mounted quickly.

The museum could have considered the presidency and the men who have held the office in several ways. Organizers say they wanted to go beyond the slogans and one-dimensional images associated with the presidents.

In the popular imagination, George Washington usually plays the rather stiff, distant "father of our country," Thomas Jefferson is the cultured aristocrat of Monticello who wrote the Declaration of Independence and Lincoln is the martyr who gave us the Emancipation Proclamation and Gettysburg Address and won the Civil War. Franklin D. Roosevelt evokes World War II and the New Deal. John F. Kennedy, assassinated in office like Lincoln, symbolizes lost youth and hope and "Camelot."

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 shows the presidents from historical, cultural, political and social perspectives but emphasizes their personal sides.

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

Washington, of course, is home to both the presidency and the Smithsonian Institution. A new president, our 43rd, is scheduled to take office Jan. 20 — despite the chaos after this month's election. (Grover Cleveland was elected to two nonconsecutive terms, so only 41 individuals have served.)

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This 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 Mr. Kennedy.

The exhibit represents Washington as a reluctant president and quotes him as saying, "I have no lust for power."

The visuals tell his story more through the National Portrait Gallery's grand, full-length portrait by Gilbert Stuart and the painting of Washington as revolutionary general in "Reviewing the Western Army at Fort Cumberland, Md." They also show him through humbler images of his beloved Mount Vernon and the brass candle stand he used to work on his farewell address.

Visitors also can see his sword and scabbard from the 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."

Also displayed, in the "Life After the Presidency" section, is the elegant, red-brocaded chair Washington sat in just before he died.

Thomas Jefferson became the nation's third president in 1801. He led the Democratic-Republicans, precursors of today's Democratic Party. He distrusted centralized government and financial elites. He also believed in a weak presidency.

Jefferson did a turnaround, however, when Napoleon offered him the entire Louisiana Territory in 1803. Jefferson rightly saw that it would give the new U.S. government power across the continent.

The exhibition implies that Jefferson was greater as a revolutionary than as a president. The catalog says, "History has been generous to his memory."

In 1776, Jefferson designed the portable lap desk on which he wrote the Declaration of Independence. The desk is one of the most important objects in the exhibit.

Broadcasts of American presidents stating the beginning of the oath of office, "I do solemnly swear," follow visitors as they pass exhibits on presidential inaugurations. The sleekly elegant carriage that Ulysses S. Grant rode to his second inauguration is displayed. Visitors also can see "The White House as Symbol and Home," which features a doll house made by the White House gardener in 1896 and given to the children of Grover Cleveland. Other displays deal with the many roles of the president as domestic, national and international leader and as commander in chief; on presidents' connections with the public, as when FDR broadcast his "fireside chats"; and displays of the inevitable cartooning of the presidency.

There also are quotes from how presidents saw the job. Lyndon B. Johnson said, "The presidency has made every man who occupied it, no matter how small, bigger than he was; and no matter how big, not big enough for its demands."

Jefferson called the presidency "a place of splendid misery." Andrew Jackson characterized the office as "dignified slavery." Warren Harding protested with, "It's Hell. No other word to describe it." Woodrow Wilson said, "Men of ordinary physique and discretion cannot be president and live."

The exhibit also makes clear that presidents have to be willing to lay down their lives. Four presidents have been killed during a total of 11 attempts and assassinations over the years.

Lincoln was mortally wounded when shot by John Wilkes Booth at Ford's Theatre in the District on April 14, 1865. The Lincoln display is one of the most successful in the show. The curators centered the drum and drumsticks played at Lincoln's funeral to be seen just as visitors enter the room.

Nearby are the top hat and the contents of his coat pockets from the night he was shot. An enlarged illustration from Harper's Weekly (April 29, 1865) of "Columbia Grieving at Lincoln's Bier" hangs nearby.

Photos chronicle Lincoln's lying in state in the East Room of the White House on April 21 and the two-hour funeral processional that carried his body to the Capitol rotunda.

Parades of caissons, riderless horses and city officials greeted the moving procession that re-traced Lincoln's 1861 route as president-elect through Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York and Chicago. Those ceremonies set the tradition of ritualized mourning that accompanied other deaths, such as that of Mr. Kennedy. A dozen videos produced with the History Channel play continuously throughout the exhibition and are most effective in this "Assassination and Mourning," section.

"The American Presidency" exhibition and the catalog that accompanies it are important, impressive projects. The show needs more space, however, to display the 900 objects included along with the videos and interactive displays.

Too much is presented to visitors in these relatively few and small sets of rooms. The vision for the exhibit is expansive, and its space also must be extensive. The reasonably priced, scholarly Smithsonian Press catalog ($24.95 softcover, $50 hardcover) presents both old and new research in exciting ways. Unfortunately it lacks a badly needed index.

WHAT: "The American Presidency: A Glorious Burden"WHERE: Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History, 14th Street and Constitution Avenue NWWHEN: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily. Timed entry passes necessary, with same-day passes available on the third floor. Advance passes, with a convenience charge, available through TicketMaster at 800/551-SEAT (7328) and 202/432-SEAT (7328)TICKETS: FreePHONE: 202/357-2700

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