Picturing the President

Americans have an almost fetishistic attitude toward leadership. Like a magic wand, “leadership” is to be waved over the problems that affect the body politic as well as the seemingly intractable flaws of U.S. foreign policy. We search the horizon for a magical leader in the same way that the hapless clowns of Beckett’s play wait for Godot. In the ideal sense that stubbornly persists in the popular imagination-rather than the reality of adulterous liaisons, anti-Semitic wisecracks, and fabricated anecdotes-the men of the Oval Office remain deus ex machina, salvational horsemen, and comicbook superheroes all rolled into one.

A new exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC projects this image of leadership onto the screen of the recent past. “The Presidency and the Cold War” covers 10 presidents from the end of World War II to the fall of the Berlin Wall. It is short, visually arresting, and historically annoying. Its presentation of U.S. president s suffers from a telescoped survey of the Cold War. More dramatically, however, the exhibit succumbs to the fallacy of exalted leadership. It taps into a deep, popular sentiment that what saved America-and indeed, the world-in the past is precisely what we need in our current circumstances: a man with a plan.
Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

The space between the Portrait Gallery’s signature exhibit on American presidents and a new temporary show highlighting a popular portrait competition is rather small, a mere two rooms. Squeezed into this space, “The Presidency and the Cold War” borrows from the iconic and the demotic aspects of the exhibits on either side. It mixes Time magazine covers with some of the famous Cold War images such as the troika of leaders posing at Yalta and Potsdam. With few exceptions, it is a solemn recounting of the history, though there are occasional flashes of humor.

The immense image that presides over the exhibit is telling. We see only the back of John F. Kennedy as he bends over his desk in the Oval Office. It is the Cuban Missile Crisis. His shoulders, like Atlas, seem to bear the full weight of the globe. His face is invisible, so he can represent every president who has had to single-handedly save the world. The focus on the body suggests as well that he is preparing a strategy not so much with his head but with his torso. America, after all, expects its presidents to provide muscular leadership, to show “guts,” or to have “cojones” (which, as Fidel Castro famously remarked after the Cuban Missile Crisis passed, Khrushchev lacked).

The four blow-up photos that preside over the exhibition like tutelary deities reinforce this subtle imagery. We see four iconic presidents: Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Reagan. These are, the exhibition suggests, the exemplary Cold War presidents. They responded to the Soviet threat with an appropriately firm hand. Truman stared down Stalin, Eisenhower sent U-2 spy planes over Soviet territory, Kennedy played chicken with Khrushchev over Cuba, and Reagan brought the Soviet Union to its knees. The détente-niks, Nixon and Ford, don’t merit star treatment. Additionally, the stink of failure hangs about them, as it does Johnson and Carter. Where the four stars of the presidential firmament erred, it was often on the side of caution. One caption quotes Eisenhower’s criticism of Kennedy for not using air attacks during the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba-“a profile in timidity and indecision,” he said in an unpublished aside.
Great Man History

The exhibit’s heavy reliance on Time magazine covers only underscores this “great man” approach to history. Occasionally Time will show a common touch in its choice of Person of the Year-such as 2006’s mirror-but generally it adheres to the notion that famous individuals, not the obscure or groups of the obscure, make history.

This is, of course, the Portrait Gallery, so individualism is inscribed in its curatorial DNA. The insights of a wide range of historians from Fernand Braudel to Howard Zinn have largely failed to crack this last bastion of curatorial hero worship. The exhibit tries to justify its approach, however, in an interesting way. The plaque at the front of the exhibit argues that the power of the presidency increased during the Cold War (without acknowledging Franklin D. Roosevelt’s pre-Cold War broadening of executive authority). The reason: “The development of intercontinental missiles reduced reaction times to minutes, and the power to make war moved-if not constitutionally-from Congress to the president.”

The statement suggests that executive power largely increased for technical reasons, not political ones. It neglects the fact that nearly all the wars of the period took place in the Third World where Washington and Moscow battled each other through proxies and where missile flight time was thankfully not an issue. And the phrase “if not constitutionally” is a curious hiccough. Perhaps the curators agree with John Yoo and other legal scholar s who have argued that the Constitution support s the notion of a “unitary executive” who, rather than Congress, makes war. Unwilling to use “though” instead of “if,” the exhibition hedges the question.
Curatorial Limits

The exhibit follows the traditional script in portraying the Cold War as a battle royale between the United States and the Soviet Union through a High Noon-style showdown between the leaders of both nations: Truman and Stalin, Eisenhower and Khrushchev, Reagan and Gorbachev. Presidential advisers make their appearance-George Kennan, Dean Acheson, John Foster Dulles-but they are chiefly bit players. Further from the action are the character actors that provide exotic color. In the Portrait Gallery’s exhibit, these Sancho Panza roles are played by Fidel Castro and Mao Zedong, who make only brief appearances.

This battle royale frame is in part a problem with curating itself. How much information can be squeezed into a small card affixed to the wall? A small exhibit like this necessarily relies on powerful, iconic images that, in theory, don’t need as much explanation. Each picture gets fewer than a hundred words, which leaves little room for subtlety or context. As such, “The Presidency and the Cold War” keeps to a familiar trajectory of how the Cold War started (slippery Soviet perfidy, hardnosed American skepticism), how it progressed (Soviet quest for world domination, American rescue of democracy), and how it ended (America armed, the Soviets blinked).

This exhibit must be irritating for Cold War historians. Where is all the nuanced scholarship on the early possibilities of avoiding the Cold War (Soviet withdrawals from Austria and Iran), the deconstruction of U.S. motives (more balance-of-power than democracy promotion), and the impact of Soviet reform (the unexpected consequences of glasnost and perestroika), to single out just three wrinkles in the Cold War fabric ? Did just deference to the image and the individualist logic of the Portrait Gallery produce this clichéd picture?
Reader’s Digest Approach

Certainly the curators are operating in a post-Enola Gay environment. In the 1990s, when the Smithsonian’s Air & Space Museum tried to mount an exhibition on the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that challenged several aspects of the Reader’s Digest version of the events, military and veterans groups defeated the attempt and forced the resignation of the museum’s director. The temptation to self-censorship must be enormous. The curators of “The Presidency and the Cold War” occasionally raise unanswered questions-about the guilt or innocence of Alger Hiss, for instance-but they never stray from the predictable course.

Even the one or two attempts at iconoclasm are immediately muffled. Lest museum-goers find a Pat Oliphant cartoon depiction of Ronald Reagan as a “cardboard messiah” too critical, the wall card generously concludes, “Historians now debate the significance of the Reagan presidency but few dismiss the 40th president as a shallow movie actor.”

More importantly, though, the exhibit reflects a populist craving for leadership. We had that leadership when we and the world needed it, the exhibit suggests. In particular, the Fab Four-Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Reagan-showed resolve at times of crisis. That these great leaders had clay feet, or might in some cases have been clay through and through, would not only disrupt the triumphalist view of the Cold War but worse, suggest that the solutions to our current problems do not lie in the hands of an as-yet-anointed leader. Judging from the media swoon over Obama and Hillary and Rudy and John, even our current experience of the U.S. president doesn’t shake our confidence in the institution and our belief that someone, some day, shall use the sword of leadership to vanquish our foes and slice through all of our many Gordian knots.

JOHN FEFFER is the co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus for the International Relations Center, North Korea, South Korea: U.S. Policy at a Time of Crisis (Seven Stories Press).and the editor of The Future of U.S.-Korean Relations (Routledge, 2006).


John Feffer is the director of Foreign Policy In Focus, where this article originally appeared.