Working the Presidential Mojo
This week, portraits of former President Bill Clinton and first lady Hillary Clinton were unveiled at the National Portrait Gallery. Commissioned portrait artist Nelson Shanks painted the unconventional eight-foot portrait of Bill Clinton standing against a fireplace and looking, er, sexy? Cocksure? Come-hither? Shanks explained his choice of posture, noting, "I think the painting really feels like Bill Clinton. It has [sic] I would not call it swagger...What? An informality? A looseness, a relaxed nature." The word you are looking for, Nelson—could it be "swank"? The man looks as if he's just come from having sex or is just getting ready to go have sex. Or both. But, while it may seem as if this presidential sexuality is new or misplaced in this type of medium, one can't say that this is the first time sexuality and power have been so linked in the White House.
Case in point: John Stewart's initially promising 1998 book Naked Pictures of Famous People. On the cover, Stewart features a defiant yet chary and almost completely naked President Abraham Lincoln. The Abraham Lincoln that we all know and love? The very same. And, the Lincoln that we are not taught about in school. "Naked Lincoln" gives us insight into nineteenth-century "sexy," and, though a daring picture, it ain't pretty. Even so, this picture provides a different glimpse of Lincoln, makes us ponder another type of legacy, and affirms why stovepipe hats aren't sold in porno shops.
And, while the unclothed president seems too hot for Stewart to adequately address in his book, "Naked Lincoln" helps us begin to understand both Clinton's popularity and people's hatred of him. Though the new Clinton portrait feels overly sensual, it also seems familiar as well, yes? Certainly, Lincoln wasn't the only president to have compromising pics produced during his time as Commander-in-Chief. Dickinson College law graduate James Buchanan birthday-suited it into history with his "Open Window Birth in Light." An untrained auteur and daguerreotype enthusiast, Buchanan was affectionally nicknamed "Bucky" for his propensity to roam the White House unclothed. Indeed, Buchanan responded poorly to sectionalism and remained unmarried because few people could stand his company (his longest-running personal aide was blind). After Lincoln's assassination, Andrew Johnson became president, and it wasn't too long into his tenure in office that Johnson got caught with his pants down (shirt off, etc.). Though usually prudish and proper in his attire, after the Radical Republicans overrode his veto to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1866, Johnson took this naked walk into history on the grounds of his childhood Tennessee home. Ever refer to Mr. Winky as a "Johnson" (as opposed to a "Fillmore" or a "Garfield")? Now you know why. Finally, Ulysses S. Grant attempted a "dressed down" (though thankfully dressed) official presidential picture, but it was ultimately rejected on grounds of indecency. His "Uly at Rest" (subtitled: "Hey, Mama—c'mere") was described as "offensive" and "insouciant" by reviewers but nevertheless toured the country in various county fairs, drawing admiring audiences. A national treasure, Grant's picture is currently housed at the national Sex and Presidents Museum (located off of I-95, Hanover exit near the Waffle House).
So, as we ponder our own responses to sexuality and the presidency, we should remember not to be too shocked. A slouchy-portraited Clinton isn't going to proposition you, he'll just remind you that, sometimes, a president needs to feel sexy, too.