When Franklin Delano Roosevelt was five years old, his father took him to the White House to meet President Grover Cleveland.
I have a strange wish for you, little man, Cleveland said to the boy FDR, that you should never grow up to be president.
The presidency is the great chimera of American life. It elevates a single figure to unimaginable power by the will of the people and often, as in the case of FDR and many others, destroys him in the saddle, whether through physical stress, political humiliation or an assassins bullet.
An exception to all other maximum leaders, good or evil, from the Windsors to Catherine the Great to the Maharajahs of the Punjab to Hitler, the presidencys relation to fine art is spotty to negligible.
Jefferson, of course, was friend and interlocutor to the first great Western critic Diderot. Grace Coolidge had her portrait done by Sargent. Teddy Roosevelt attended the Armory show in 1913 with Sheriff Bob Chandler. A self-portrait by President Eisenhower was recently valued on the Antiques Roadshow at $30,000. Jackie Kennedy took her taste for stuffy hunt scenes from the Duponts and Mellons. Hillary Clinton was ridiculed, unjustly, for exhibiting a late de Kooning at the White House.
Thats it. Neither George W. Bush nor John Kerry has ever publicly expressed any interest in painting or sculpture, although, as Artnet Magazine has reported, Kerry has not been averse to taking or selling shares in his wifes Old Masters. Just another can of beans at the store for the Boston Brahmin, we guess.
But the presidency as a subject for art is a far grander thing, beginning with the Stuart and Peale portraits of General Washington, now more prized than ever. The wanted posters for John Wilkes Booth, full of mournful encomiums to Abe Lincoln, are still great finds at auction. Thomas Nast drawings of William Jennings Bryan, Willard Mullins portraits of FDR and Herblocks cartoons of a dark Richard Nixon easily evoke their eras, as does Andy Warhols drag Nixon portrait, Vote McGovern.
Then there is the greatest film of the 20th century, the Zapruder film, in which John Kennedy is irrefutably blown away from the front. All the machinations of the Warren Commission cannot deny it.
It says something about Baby Boomer times that none of our presidents since Nixon, even the movie star Reagan, have inspired any great art. Perhaps, we have finally reached the time when any run-of-the-mill elitist, full of moral polenta, can become president.
In these distinctly perilous times, lets hope that isnt so, although the pandering personas of the two current contenders say otherwise.
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).