Wearing an inscrutable expression for the cameraman, William McKinley arriving at his local Canton, Ohio polling place in 1896, the year he won his first term as President.
Living before a perpetual public eye, they’re intensely self-conscious. And that’s how most of them have wanted it to be.
Before discovering they can literally get the attention of the whole world by slipping on a tarmac, carrying a garment bag, rocking a dance move, making believe they can’t hear shouted questions, picking up beagle dogs by the ears, or isolating in the Oval Office, Presidents have had to pause for one final, brief moment of judgment by an electorate eager to discern their feelings. Courtesy of the camera.
It’s a dignified processional into a schoolroom. A neighborly grin for a local registrar. A solemn nod at a ballot in hand. A confident push of a canvas curtain. A hesitant release of paper into a slotted box. A momentary glance into the future of fate. A calm nod to nobody ahead. A stilted exit stroll.
All we have is this prelude and finale. The moment we want but can never have takes place in between all the distractive stagecraft of encouraging spouses, concerned aides, coverage of security. It’s that ticking time when they are alone with themselves not as brand products but human beings.
The would-be President is voting.
While remembering the distinction between local assembly names that seem similar, or holding their nose for a congressional candidate they secretly think stinks, or sadly supporting a second-term-seeking Senator of integrity slated for sure defeat, or ambivalently amused by equally unctuous gubernatorial choices, the eyes of the candidates inevitably see their own name in print.
They know they are not just being offered up to millions of Americans to merely make them the world’s most powerful person for the foreseeable future. They’re also voting to also eventually morph themselves into marble as characters in the imagination of eternity.
More often than not, this is a moment they’ve fantasized about for years, some since childhood. It’s a moment to make mamma proud, sweet revenge on the naysayers, the culmination of intensive study, sacrifice and saving. It ‘s a moment for redemption for being called a liar, murderer, adulterer, fraud, criminal. And worse.
Even candidates who’ve forcibly disciplined themselves into recognizing the value of humility, cannot avoid the stupefying dose of egotism inevitably necessary to punching the card or clicking the lever next to their own name.
Some may do so with a sense of moral submission larger than them as humans, as if the hand of God rests on their own and pulls the lever. Others may do so with a gloating glee, as if this is the final plot point in a genius scheme, years in the making. Perhaps there were presidential candidates so overwhelmed by it all that they voted for the other guy?
We will never really know. But we do have pictures.
What offers a momentary clue into their perspective comes how they jaunt into their local polling place, enunciate their name to be checked on residential registers, grasp the ballot they’re handed, approach a booth, pull to close – and then open the little curtain, then walk their check-marked ballot or punch- card to place in the box.
Presidents have been voting for themselves from the beginning but it was more than a century into the presidency before photographers captured those moments. Before that, citizens relied on imaginative and partisan newspaper pen-and-ink sketches of presidential life. Yet, oddly, there seems to exist only one of a President voting, Chester Arthur.
Ultimately, one can’t read too much into the faces of Presidents voting. After all, just like Election Day, crafting a public image has been part of the presidency since its inception.
Chester Arthur was depicted as voting in what is apparently the only pre-photo era image made of a President in the act.
Here now are photographs of Presidents voting, from William McKinley in 1896 to Barack Obama in 2008. What do their faces reveal – to you?
Disappointed? Wearing the same expression as before, William McKinley exits his polling place in 1896 after casting his vote – surely for the best candidate.
Strident? Former President Theodore Roosevelt, who hoped to become a future President as well, dashing out of his Oyster Bay, New York polling place after voting in the 1912 presidential election, when he ran as a third-party candidate on the Progressive Party ticket. He may not have gotten back into the White House, but clearly the kiddies liked him.
Overcome? His name found on the Cincinnati voter registration lists, a dubious William Howard Taft poses for the picture boys. Never wanting to be president, his jolly sense of humor may well have led him to vote for the other fellow, instead of himself. 1908 – as the picture says.
Concerned? Surely casting the ballot for himself in the old metal wire voting box, Woodrow Wilson votes in Princeton, New Jersey in 1912: no women allowed – yet.
Grateful? The best gift. Warren G. Harding politely pauses as his name is checked off on the Marion, Ohio voter registration records, November 2, 1920 and becoming the only person elected as president on his birthday.
Mournful? On October 30, 1924 incumbent President Calvin Coolidge posed on the White House south lawn, making his choices on an absentee ballot. It was likely a painful moment. Just four months earlier his teenage son and namesake had died from blood poisoning. Only after serving his full term did Coolidge admit that “the power and the glory of the presidency” had died when he lost his son.
Quixotic? Herbert Hoover handed a ballot at his Palo Alto, California polling place, prompting a very rare smile on the put-upon President’s face. It was the height of the Great Depression, and President Hoover’s limited federal intervention and reliance on voluntarism just wasn’t helping to turn around the economic crisis. He would be soundly defeated by his old Washington friend Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Cautious? In 1936, Franklin D. Roosevelt voted a second term for himself. He would do it two more times…not for a second term, but rather a third and a fourth. His usual grinning élan seems absent, his expression perhaps related to posing for the press while having to tightly grasp the bar above his head. Usually seen on the arm of his son James or others who knew about his polio and inability to walk on his own, nobody else could very well have entered the voting booth with him
Startled? Voting in 1948 during his first and only run for the presidency after inheriting the office upon FDR’s 1945 death, peppery Harry Truman’s confidence was seen as delusion by the national media. And then, the votes were counted and he won.
Purposeful? Five-star general, head of NATO and Columbia University president, Dwight D. Eisenhower helps seal his fate as he slips his ballot into the box during his 1952 presidential election. He was ambivalent about entering politics. Ike said he could have been a “conservative Democrat” or “liberal Republican.” He went with the latter choice.
Cool? Jack Kennedy; the Democratic candidate votes in the 1960 election. It was a day long in the making for the Massachusetts Senator. For at least nine years, when just a Congressman, JFK had come around to his father’s urging that he make the run to become the nation’s first Catholic President. It was a close call – but he did it.
Satisfied? Despite previous charges of Lone Star monkey business, incumbent President Lyndon B. Johnson, voting for his own full term in 1964 won it so fair and square that the next day he was dubbed “Landslide Lyndon.” His push on civil rights, built on Harry Truman’s racial integration of the military, would turn the once “Solid South” from Democratic territory to Republican.
Secretive? President Richard Nixon enters a San Clemente, California booth, cloaked in canvas to protect voter privacy, on Election Day, 1972. One can’t read much from this, the candidate at too far a distance to make out his true feelings. The bungled burglary at Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate building complex had taken place five months earlier, but not yet linked in a trail leading to the President, it had no affect on his landslide victory, ironically proving there had been no need to worry about potentially losing his 1972 re-election campaign that year.
Attentive? As he filled out his 1976 election ballot back home in Grand Rapids, Michigan, incumbent President Gerald Ford was confident he would win his own full term. He lost by one of the closest elections in history.
Sincere? The Sweater Prez: down to the last moment, candidate Jimmy Carter enforced his image as a common man of the people. While voting in his hometown of Plains, Georgia, he became the first presidential candidate to show up at the polls in anything but a suit and tie. Four years later, he’d be in a suit while his opponent Ronald Reagan showed up in a checkered sports shirt.
Assured? Ronald Reagan shows off his blank ballot before voting at his local Pacific Palisades, California polling place, 1980. Even before all the Golden State’s returns were in, he got a call from President Carter conceding the election to him.
Diligent? George Bush votes in Houston in 1992, slipping his paper ballot into a sturdy, utilitarian metal ballot with the plain sprayed words “ballot box” evoking a nostalgic photo op, while other voters use punchcard tables behind him with that new sleeker Late Eighties look.
Surreptitious? He never lost faith in his ability to win. Often counted out of the game before it was over, the President known as “the Comeback Kid,” Bill Clinton, votes In Westchester County, New York, in the 2000 election not for another term – but for his wife as US Senator.
Uncertain? A momentarily distracted George W. Bush holds his voter registration card as he leaves the booth and heads to the box, at a polling station at the Crawford Texas Fire Department, after casting his ballot for the mid-term elections during his first term as President. November 5, 2002. (Getty)
Breezy? All systems up on the smiling face of Barack Obama, who made casting his ballot in 2008 in Chicago a happy family outing.
Categories: Election Day, Presidents, Uncategorized
Tags: Barack Obama, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Theodore Roosevelt, Warren G. Harding