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Archive for November, 2010

Does television affect how we elect Presidents?

A screenshot from the Nixon/Kennedy Presidential debates (JFK Presidential Library)

A screenshot from the Nixon/Kennedy Presidential debates (JFK Presidential Library)

Fifty years ago last week, John F. Kennedy beat Richard Nixon to become the nation’s 35th President. The 1960s were a significant changing of the guard in U.S. leadership and also in how Americans chose their leader. During the 1960 debates between the two candidates, Americans for the first time could tune in and watch the debates on television, or listen on the radio.

About 70 million people tuned in to watch the Kennedy/Nixon debates. When they turned on their television sets, they saw a tired Richard Nixon and a tanned, fit John Kennedy. Nixon had refused makeup for the cameras, wore an ill-fitting shirt, and hadn’t gained back his natural weight after a serious knee injury and two weeks in the hospital. Kennedy, on the other hand, had been campaigning in southern California and appeared on camera with a healthy tan.

The story has it that those Americans who tuned in over the radio believed the two candidates were evenly matched, but tended to think Nixon had won the debates. But those 70 million who watched the candidates on the television believed Kennedy was the clear victor.

While there aren’t any qualified statistics to back up this claim, what is certain is that Kennedy took a leap in the polls after the debate. … [ Read all ]

Facial Hair Friday: Civil War Beards on Film

Civil War veterans at the Blue and Grey Reunion. This is a screen from the "Inside the Vaults" video short.

Civil War veterans at the Blue and Gray Reunion. This is a screen from the "Inside the Vaults" video short.

Yesterday was Veterans Day, and many of my friends on Facebook posted tributes to their family and friends, usually mentioning their grandfathers who fought in World War II.

Now, World War II was over 60 years ago, but I personally know WWII vets—my own grandfather and great-uncle. And my father knew family members who were WWI vets.

It is easy to think of historical events as happening in the long-ago past, in a vacuum where wars have a beginning and end rather than as lives that overlap from one event to another. But things run into each other—Theodore Roosevelt saw Lincoln’s funeral, and Roosevelt’s  son Ted served in World War I and later was on the beach in Normandy in WWII, directing the troops as they came ashore.

But still, I was jolted when I saw the film footage of Civil War veterans. After all—the Civil War ended in 1865, before the invention of cars or telephone or airplanes. But there they were in motion, men who had been on the field at Gettysburg, chatting and talking, their long white beards blowing in the wind.

They were filmed in 1938, 20 years after WWI and just a few years before WWII. They had grown up with horses and trains, and they arrived … [ Read all ]

President Truman at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

To all who serve and all who served, thank you.

President Truman at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, 1948 (ARC 199681)

President Truman at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, 1947 (ARC 199681)

[ Read all ]

The peculiar story of Wilmer McLean

At left, Wilmer McLean's house where the Civil War began. At right, Wilmer McLean's house where the Civil War ended (111-B-4756, and 111-B-6333)

At left, Wilmer McLean's house where the Civil War 'began.' At right, Wilmer McLean's house where the Civil War ended. (111-B-4756 and 111-B-6333)

Today Part Two of “Discovering the Civil War” opens at the National Archives in Washington, DC. The exhibit is divided into a few sections, the last of which is entitled “Endings and Beginnings,” a reference to the end of the Civil War and the start of Reconstruction. As to the beginning and the end of the Civil War itself, there is only one man who book-ended it so literally. His name was Wilmer McLean.

On July 18, 1861, Confederate General Beauregard had sat down for supper in the home of a Manassas local when a cannonball pierced through the house and landed in the kitchen fireplace. It was something of a surprise, but not so overwhelming as to ruin Beauregard’s sense of humor “A comical effect of this artillery fight was the destruction of the dinner of myself and staff by a Federal shell that fell into the fire-place of my headquarters at the McLean House,” he wrote in his diary. Perhaps the shell would have been more of a shock had it not been just one of many volleys in the first major campaign of the Civil War: the Battle of Bull Run.

The house belonged to a man named … [ Read all ]

Teddy Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln in the same photo

Lincoln's funeral procession passing the Roosevelt Mansion in New York City (Courtesy New York Public Library)

Lincoln's funeral procession passing the Roosevelt Mansion in New York City (Courtesy New York Public Library)

History is full of strange coincidences, and the Civil War is no exception. In the 1950s, Stefan Lorant was researching a book on Abraham Lincoln when he came across an image of the President’s funeral procession as it moved down Broadway in New York City. The photo was dated April 25, 1865.

At first it appeared like one of any number of photographs of Lincoln’s funeral procession, until he identified the house on the corner as that of Cornelius van Schaack Roosevelt, the grandfather of future President Teddy Roosevelt and his brother Elliot.

The coincidence might have ended there, but Lorant took a closer look. In the second=story window of the Roosevelt mansion he noticed the heads of two boys are peering out onto Lincoln’s funeral procession.

Lorant had the rare chance to ask Teddy Roosevelt’s wife about the image, and when she saw it, she confirmed what he had suspected: the faces in the windows were those of a young future President and his brother. “Yes, I think that is my husband, and next to him his brother,” she exclaimed. “That horrible man! I was a little girl then and my governess took me to Grandfather Roosevelt’s house on Broadway so I could watch the funeral procession. But … [ Read all ]