Monday, February 17, 2014

Presidential Gatherings.

Happy Presidents Day!

On a search to find the most former, current, or future presidents alive together at one time, I stumbled across some presidential gatherings that I was unaware of—& some pretty definitive pictures from ones I did know about. I decided to gather them all in one place as I sought to answer my question. What follows are photographic occurrences of four or more presidents gathered at once.

When President Obama was inaugurated, he asked outgoing President Bush to host a presidential meet-&-greet in the Oval Office before the ceremonies on January 20, 2009:

Presidents G.H.W.Bush, Obama, G.W.Bush, Clinton, & Carter.

The five men would gather again on May 1, 2013, for the opening of the George W. Bush Presidential Library:

Presidents Obama, G.W.Bush, Clinton, G.H.W.Bush, & Carter.

Besides the opening of presidential libraries, it seems that funerals are the most common way to get presidents together. Here is picture from the funeral of Coretta Scott King from February 7, 2006. Four out of the five living presidents attended (President Ford was too ill; he would die later that year), while a sixth president—future President (then-Senator) Obama was also in attendance:

Presidents & First Ladies G.W.Bush, Clinton, G.H.W.Bush (sans Barbara), & Carter.

Here is a picture from the Nixon Funeral, from April 22, 1994, minus G.W.Bush but plus Ford:

Presidents & First Ladies Clinton, G.H.W.Bush, Reagan, Carter, & Ford.

This same group also gathered for the opening of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library on November 4, 1991:

Presidents G.H.W.Bush, Reagan, Carter, Ford, & Nixon.

Presidents Nixon, Ford, Carter, & Reagan got together lots of times, in various combinations over the years. The finest, in my opinion, comes from late 1981, after the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, when President Reagan gathered with his living predecessors:

Presidents Ford, Nixon, Reagan, & Carter.

Growing up in the post-Nixon era, I was very used to the sight of four or five former presidents gathered together. However, historically, this is a relatively rare thing. In fact, when Nixon himself took office in 1972, there were no living former presidents. However, there were a few times when several gathered in the decades before. Here is the funeral for Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn, who died in office; his funeral was held on November 18, 1961, & had President Kennedy, future President Johnson, & former Presidents Eisenhower & Truman:

Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, Eisenhower, & Truman.

The four men also attended the funeral of Eleanor Roosevelt on November 10, 1962:

Presidents & First Ladies Kennedy, Johnson, Truman, & Eisenhower (sans Mamie).

Finally, there is the inauguration of President Eisenhower on January 20, 1953, with a future President (then-Vice-President) Nixon looming eerily large:

Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Nixon, & Hoover.

That pretty much covers all of the major times four or more presidents have gathered together in modern times. I thought that the opening of Hoover's Presidential Library in 1962 might have attracted a few, but it looks like only Truman attended; by the time Hoover died two years later, Kennedy had already passed away, leaving Truman, Eisenhower, Johnson, & future President Nixon, but I can't seem to confirm that all four men were at the ceremonies.

By the way, in a rare feat, the First Ladies totally outshine the Presidents in this category. Two times in the 1990s, no fewer than 6 First Ladies gathered, the first in 1991 for the opening of the Reagan Library:

Standing: Nancy Reagan & Barbara Bush.
Sitting: Lady Bird Johnson, Pat Nixon, Rosalynn Carter & Betty Ford.

And the second time in 1994:

Lady Bird Johnson, Betty Ford, Rosalynn Carter, Nancy Reagan,
Barbara Bush, & Hillary Rodham Clinton.

There was a brief period in 1993, when the 6 First Ladies above were alive at the same time as Pat Nixon, but I can't find any evidence of the 7 First Ladies ever gathering in one place.

Still, well done, Ladies!

* * *

Now, to get back to the original question at hand: The most presidents gathered at once. There are two contenders that predate photography. According to David McCullough in The Great Bridge, 6 past, present, & future presidents were on-hand for the opening of the Erie Canal on October 26, 1825: Former Presidents Adams, Jefferson, Madison, & Monroe, President John Quincy Adams, & future President Jackson.

New York Governor DeWitt Clinton upstages all the presidents
in attendance by performing "The Marriage of the Waters."

There is also the first State of the Union by President Martin Van Buren on December 5, 1837, which also had 6 past, present, & future presidents: President Van Buren, former President John Quincy Adams (then a congressman), & future Presidents Polk (then Speaker of the House), Fillmore (who was a congressman), Pierce & Buchanan (who were both senators).

Only one problem. The State of the Union address was delivered by paper starting with Jefferson in 1801 until Woodrow Wilson reinstated the practice of reading it in-person over a century later. So unless there was some state ceremony in that time period that required all those men to be there, we can't say for sure there was anything more than the definite potential of 6 presidents gathered (guess "The Little Magician" wasn't so magical after all).

President Martin "Coulda Shoulda Woulda" Van Buren.

So it looks like the Founding Fathers have done it once again.

Unless, of course, Hillary Rodham Clinton becomes the 45th President, which would add her to both the Nixon funeral & the opening of the G.W.Bush Presidential Library as a 6th—as well as the Coretta Scott King funeral as a record-breaking 7th.

Not to jinx anything.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

It Was 50 Years Ago Today.

Today is the 50th anniversary of one of the greatest moments in rock & roll history—& for many, the definitive moment in rock & roll history—The Beatles playing The Ed Sullivan Show.

If JFK's assassination in late November 1963 was the real start of the 1960s in all of its foreboding doom, The Beatles on Ed Sullivan was the bookend piece less than 3 months later, wherein the 1960s received its sense of effervescent hope. Indeed, the two events needed each other—on one level, The Beatles were the '60s phoenix that arose from JFK's '60s ashes. The fact that The Beatles landed at the newly-rechristened JFK Airport only cemented this fact. As The Beatles arrived in the New World, it was in a place where JFK lay silently all around them—literally.

But such philosophizing about timing and culture is not to diminish The Beatles' grand achievement. They were, at the end of the day, the greatest rock & roll unit ever assembled, & the songs they sang—"All My Loving," "Till There Was You,"& "She Loves You," later followed by both sides of their American breakthrough hit, "I Saw Her Standing There" & "I Want To Hold Your Hand"—represent modern rock at its essence; indeed, if one event ushered in the transition from the classic rock era of Elvis & Chuck Berry to the modern rock era of The Beatles, Bob Dylan, & The Rolling Stones, this was it. & like JFK, we can see a changing of the guards—The Beatles had received a welcoming telegram from Elvis & the Colonel that Ed Sullivan read on the air.

As a rock & roll moment in time, The Beatles playing Ed Sullivan's only real competition is Elvis recording "That's All Right," Dylan plugging in, Hendrix at Woodstock, The Stones at Altamont, & The Beatles' own release of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band some three years after playing Sullivan's program. (To see my own tallied list of the 100 Most Important Moments In Rock & Roll, click here.)

But in a way, The Beatles playing Ed Sullivan trumps them all. Their performance allowed the later events to happen in the first place, which in turn validated Elvis's breakthrough moment that came before it. If classic rock had given way to the bland pop of the early '60s, would Elvis be as influential today? There's no way to know for sure, but I did always find it telling that when The Beatles hit #1 in America for the first time with "I Want To Hold Your Hand," the song they knocked off was Bobby Vinton's "Blue Velvet."

Kinda says it all—yeah, yeah, yeah.