Friday, November 23, 2012

My kind of town

We have a lot to catch up on! First, thanks to all the backers for Kickstarter project #2. It's pretty clear I set the goal too high, as you all raised nearly half of the goal, which was in effect one of the two trips. I have a plan B to get back in action soon, so this shouldn't slow us down too much.

Also, last week I dropped by the annual wreath laying ceremony at Franklin Pierce's grave in Concord, and got some good pictures. I'll have those for you shortly.

But on to the present: the Midwest. This week I'll see President Lincoln in Springfield, Illinois and President Ford in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I spent part of today in Chicago enjoying world-class wind chill and dropping by a few of the city's presidential statues. I haven't processed my full-size photos yet, but through the magic of Instagram I have a few moments to share for the time being:

A cold day at Grant Park with Mr Lincoln.

Here's the Lincoln statue at Grant Park. The sculptor here is Augustus Saint-Gaudens, whose studio in New Hampshire is now a National Historic Site.

Lincoln Park well protected from vampires.

Lincoln has four statues in Chicago, and this is the one at Lincoln Park, appropriately enough.

Saw Lincoln at Grant Park; now here's Grant at Lincoln Park.

I saw Lincoln in Grant Park, so to complete the circle I had to see Grant in Lincoln Park. This statue is just south of the entrance of the zoo, built into the side of a hill. Grant and his horse have a pretty nice view of Lake Michigan.

Tomorrow I head to Dixon, to see yet another Lincoln statue and several Ronald Reagan statues... and soon: two presidents!

Monday, November 19, 2012

Gerald R. Ford House

Jerry's house

A house says a lot about a person, and that's often the case when the person in question is a president. Visit Mount Vernon and you'll see the gears in George Washington's mind turning toward agriculture, not war or politics. Drop my Monticello and everywhere you look you'll find examples of Jefferson's passion for science, literature, natural history and just about everything else. And in Gerald Ford's house in Alexandria, you'll see a suburban dad. A regular guy. Just like you figured, right?

The Fords built the house on Crown View Drive in the 1950's, after Jerry won a second term in Congress and realized he might not be moving back to Michigan for a while. There was plenty of room for a growing family - four bedrooms, a fireplace, a garage - and a good-sized yard, complete with a swingset and a pool. Not too far away from downtown, maybe a mile or so from the train - a pretty good setup for any family, really. "It was very normal, very middle American," son Jack Ford remembered. "You’d jump on your bike and go riding down the street, and your parents didn’t worry about you.”

Then, in 1973, something fairly important happened: Congressman Ford became Vice President Ford. By then lawmakers had made the Naval Observatory the official veep house, but work crews were still doing renovations, so the Fords stayed on Crown View, albeit with thick bulletproof glass added to the master bedroom window, a Secret Service command post in the garage and steel reinforcing bars in the driveway, so the concrete wouldn't buckle when the vice president's armored limo pulled in. Also: the basement was off-limits; all the old paint cans and Christmas decorations stuck behind security equipment.

And then, August 8, 1974: President Nixon announced he was resigning, which meant Alexandria's first citizen was about to become the nation's first citizen. The next morning the press converged on Crown View to get a glimpse of the new president's morning routine and maybe even get a statement. They got neither, though the nearby Abbruzzese family did let reporters use their phone while they waited. (The reporters later gave the Abbruzzeses a sign for the garage, stating “First press room of President Gerald R. Ford, August 8, 1974.”)

The Fords stayed home for the first ten days of Jerry's presidency. Ostensibly this was so the White House staff could prepare the living quarters for the Ford family, but in a way it reinforced President Ford's steady, no-drama tone as he tried to steer the country out of Watergate and back to normalcy. It's hard to see an "imperial presidency," after all, when you see the president stepping out in his pajamas to grab the morning paper.

Calm, yes, but maybe not quite normal: son Steve Ford said his mother, Betty, noted the following early in her tenure as First Lady: "Jerry, something's wrong here. You just became president of the United States and I'm still cooking." You'd think the president would have come back with some kind of witty sitcom-style one-liner but that doesn't appear to be the case.

The Fords did move to the White House, and though they said they intended to return to Alexandria at the end of Jerry's presidency, they actually moved to California instead, and the house on Crown View became a rental property. And you know how those get.

"It was super cool," onetime resident Brewster Thackeray told the Washington Post. And while Mr. Thackeray was impressed by the sense of history in the house, so, too, was he intrigued by the prospects of turning the president's refrigerator into a "kegorator" and holding toga parties around the presidential pool.

The neighborhood seems to have settled back down - and I attribute that to the fact that former Drug Czar Barry McCaffrey moved next door - so much so that you'd never guess there was anything noteworthy about the house, except for the National Historic Landmark plaque just to the right of the front door. Which is far as you can get - it's a private residence, so don't drop by in a toga and ask "so when does the pool party start?"

Jerry's house

This is what the "Lincoln" movie should've been about

From a Chicago Tribune list of little-known Lincoln facts:

Lincoln declined the King of Siam's offer to supply elephants to the U.S. government, writing in 1862 that his country "does not reach a latitude so low as to favor the multiplication of the elephant."

I appreciate the great struggle to rid the country of slavery as much as anyone, but that story is somewhat well-worn ground. Wouldn't it have been even more interesting to see Steven Spielberg and Daniel Day-Lewis take on the tale of Lincoln and the elephants? The hours he stayed up late, pondering how to reply to the King's offer? The difficulties with his troublesome Cabinet members, including Seward, who told anyone who would listen how much he would love to have an elephant with him at the White House - when he was president? How General McClellan plotted against the elephants, spreading rumors that they actually did forget and how dangerous that would be during wartime? And how, when the elephants arrived by accident despite Lincoln's letter, Grant and Sherman made them the heart of the Union advance - and tramped through Atlanta on Christmas Day 1864?

Ok, not all of the above is accurate, but it would make for a terrific movie. I've even uncovered the famous Matthew Brady image of the President with a friend called Peanuts:

Friday, November 16, 2012

US Presidents in Video Games: The Top Five Moments

Never has a bond been more unbreakable than the one between video games and presidents. President Ronnie in Bad Dudes (as shown above). President Solidus Snake in Metal Gear Solid 2. Resident Evil games had a zombie as president once, and in a game called Destroy All Humans! the brain of the very corrupt (and very assassinated) fictional president was placed into a giant cyborg body. "Behold!" says one character. "The RoboPrez!" He was a big hit with robot voters, but with few others, and that was a problem because robots can't vote. Yet. 

The real, historical American commanders in chief are in video games as well, though not usually as robots, and for the record there is absolutely no truth to the rumor that William Howard Taft was the original star of Pac-Man. But that might have made more sense than some of the presidential video game appearances we now present to you: 

5. Bill Clinton Believes He Can Fly

The above image is NOT a Photoshop, it's proof that Scottie Pippen wasn't the only big basketball talent to come out of Arkansas... here's the man from Hope showing some serious vertical. Hillary Clinton appears to have some mad court skillz of her own; no doubt some of those Texts from Hillary went out to the NBA stars of today. 


4. Thank You Thomas Jefferson, But Our Independence Is In Another Castle!

In Mario's Time Machine, everyone's favorite mushroom-powered plumber goes all Peabody and Sherman on the space-time continuum, righting all sorts of historical wrongs, including a missing copy of the Declaration of Independence. Fortunately he's able to get the fresh document to his "good friend" Thomas Jefferson, who predicts Mario's face may someday "appear carved on a mountain." With Mario as the star this scene is adorable, though part of me thinks it would have been hilarious with Donkey Kong. Or Rupaul. 

3. The torch has been passed to a new generation of interactive CD-ROM 

Most of us remember the extremely controversial game JFK: Reloaded, an "educational" game in which you stand at the window of the Texas Book Depository with a rifle and "learn" about shooting the president. But does anyone but me remember the CD-ROM game Reelect JFK? (Seriously, if you're out there, get in touch.) As you can guess from the title, the game's premise is that President Kennedy survives Dallas, returns to Washington and runs for a second term, as controlled by you the player. He also tries to investigate the assassination attempt himself, by sneaking away from the White House under the guise of "reporter Kevin Bruderman." This convinces me that pretty much every president has snuck around as a "reporter" to dig up dirt on himself. In fact, in researching this game I found this very suspicious 1970 file photo of UPI Washington correspondent "Mick Dixon":

But the murder mystery is just one piece of Reelect JFK - there's the campaign, there's governing... heck, the man has a pretty long - and awesome - to-do list. 

And he accomplishes it all eating nothing but chowder. My day pales in comparison, frankly.

2. Ask not what your zombies can do for you 

One item that's not on the Reelect JFK to-do list: mow down zombies who have infiltrated the Pentagon. You will find that, however, in the game Call of Duty: Black Ops. And this time, President Kennedy has company: Defense Secretary Robert McNamara is there, as you might expect, but so is Richard Nixon... and Fidel Castro. 

I guess if hearing John F. Kennedy tell Richard Nixon "lock and load" was on your to-do list, well, you can check that one off now.

1. "Here to help." 

I'm operating on the barest of details for this last entry, but apparently there was a game called Conduit 2, and at the end of the game the lead whoever defeats somebody and then a lot of lasers go off and a woman talks and then when things look bleak for whatever reason Abraham Lincoln and George Washington show up in robo-space suits and guns, saying they're "here to help." 

Again, I'm completely unfamiliar with the game. I don't know where "here" is, or who it is they're there to help, or what help even means. All I know is that if Abe Lincoln showed up at my space station or whatever and offered help, I'd probably take it. Actually I'd probably wet myself out of confusion, but then I'd say yes. 

Thursday, November 15, 2012

"We're facing a ninja-related crisis of national security."

The buzz around Lincoln is huge; no doubt Daniel Day-Lewis is making room for an Academy Award on his Ikea LERBERG shelf unit. But it's not the first time someone's portrayed a president in the movies - in fact, good as his performance was, it may not even be the best of all time. Who could forget Anthony Hopkins' stirring turn at John Quincy Adams in Amistad, or Anthony Hopkins' dark and awkward performance in the title role of Nixon? At one point I was sure Anthony Hopkins was attempting to play every president, and was greatly looking forward to his interpretation of the wild-eyed president from Buffalo in Rockin' the Fillmore.

I'll delve more deeply into this world of presidents in film in the coming weeks. Here's a good starting point: one, Bob Mondello's piece for NPR about Lincoln's Screen Legacy, tracing the history of Celluloid Abe from Henry Fonda and Ralph Ince to the Spielberg-and-Vampire-Hunter era we're in now.

I'm also going to look into another area presidents end up on occasion: video games. The best one, hands down, is the game Bad Dudes, where two, well, bad dudes go on a secret mission because "the president has been kidnapped by ninjas." And there's a movie adaptation! Well, sort of.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Making Media

I got to talk about this project today with my pals at New Hampshire Media Makers in Newmarket, including the talented video man about town Dan Freund of ShortStream.TV, who's rocking a pretty sweet mustache this month. He's like the Jay Cutler of Movember, except without all the interceptions (hiyo!). Anyway, check out our witty repartee in Dan's video:

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Ulysses S Grant Memorial

Ulysses S Grant Memorial

If you're starting your tour of the National Mall at the US Capitol, your first stop as you head west is likely to be the US Grant Memorial. It's probably good to get it out of the way early, cause it's pretty strong stuff. 

Sure, it's majestic in places - General Grant looks calm and determined atop his horse, Cincinnatus - he's facing west, toward the Lincoln Memorial - but below him is Civil War chaos. Here's how the Washington Post described it: "mud, exhaustion, horrible suspense, screaming plunging horses, broken reins, swollen veins, all of this in bronze." I suppose it would make no sense to show Grant's leadership without also showing the men he led, but I didn't expect to see horses' tongues flailing wildly and terrified men in their death throes. To paraphrase Grant's friend William Tecumseh Sherman, war statues are hell too. 

So are building them - the project was commissioned in 1902, and sculptor Henry Merwyn Shrady spent the next two decades (and a quarter of a million dollars - a record at the time) laboring over the memorial, going so far as to dissect horse remains to get the equine anatomy right. While 20 years is a long time to work on one piece, and the extra horse studies paid off in unprecedented horse tongue sculpture realism, Shrady might have been better served by a break now and then - he died just before the memorial was dedicated, on April 27, 1922 - General Grant's 100th birthday.

Today the Grant piece has another function: staging ground for tourist photos. Stand atop the memorial facing west and you're in perfect position to have someone take your photo with the Capitol as a backdrop; face east and you'll have a reflecting pool and the Washington Monument behind you. A saw an older woman make her adult son, his wife and their daughter not only pose but dance for her camera in front of the US Capitol. Also worth noting: the grandma here had a bunch of feathers in her hair, like Phyllis Diller's feathered hat, only without the hat. It may not have been civil war, but it sure was painful.