In the third grade, I was handed a book that contained 4-5 page histories of the American presidents, and I read this book over and over for as long as it held together, fascinated with the very concept of presidents as individuals. At the time I’d received this book, I had been alive for the presidencies of Carter and Reagan, but not cognizant of the former’s tenure before he’d lost the office, so for all practical purposes Reagan had been president for my entire life. Somehow, I’d just internalized the idea that all American presidents were more or less like Reagan, albeit with different situations to handle in the same way that Reagan had to handle them. The presidency, in my immature estimation, subsumed one’s personality. Every man who had the job had to do the job first, and be the man they were second.
This is one of many reasons you do not let third graders vote.
Obsessed as I was with the stories of each president beyond the well-learned legends of Washington and Lincoln, I checked out other books from the library, trying to find facts I’d missed previously. One of these books included the full-color, official portraits of the men who had held the office. Almost all of these portraits seemed the same to me–steadfast, noble-looking white men in dark suits and the collars of the time period, sitting or standing in front of either a black background or the wall of a White House chamber.
Except for Kennedy’s.
Kennedy’s portrait, seen here, was very much a thing unlike the others, and it’s not an exaggeration to say it haunts me to this day. He looked so young and blond, which threw me because I’d gotten used to the white or black hair of the men before him, and because I thought that Kennedy’s hair was browner in real life. But more than that, of course, was his stance and demeanor–brooding, burdened, downcast. It stands in contrast to the myth of Kennedy’s “Camelot,” with his family of gorgeous children and siblings and wives, to have this image of a young leader wrestling, quietly, with the demons born of having one of the hardest jobs in the world.
I learned later that this was a choice on behalf of the artist, who painted Kennedy after his sudden and enigmatic assassination, and who did not wish to paint the eyes of a man so recently deceased. Still, there were multiple options available to the artist under that limitation, and the many striking differences between Kennedy’s portrait and those of every other president–the lighter gray suit; the white, almost half-formed background into which Kennedy seems to be melting–seem to be a statement not just on Kennedy but on the nature of the presidency in general.
The four former presidents that I’ve been aware of in my lifetime–Reagan, Bush, Clinton, and Bush the Younger–each left office with different approval ratings and accomplishments but the one thing they all left with was a visage that had aged significantly more than the 4-8 years they’d been in office. You can already see the pronounced lines and white shocks in Obama’s face and hair, and you know that it’s the office that did that to him. Gravity and time work differently on the American president; it’s what comes of the American president’s attempts to manage both gravity and time.
The other 42 portraits are images of men at their finest, at the height of their powers, and collectively attempt to persuade us of the fiction that we have always been led by our best and brightest.
But Kennedy’s portrait of a man saddled with the weight of history…that one feels, to me, like the most honest.