the exhibit does remind us of a time that has disappeared into the
past. Just about everyone went to a public school. That’s because
just about everybody was poor or of modest means.
An elderly Hoover, who, if he had never become president probably
would be remembered as one of the great public servants of the 20th
century, is shown in a TV interview, recalling that he was able to
study engineering at Stanford University because the tuition was
free, adding drolly, “and that fee more or less fitted my
While Dwight Eisenhower remembers his after-school hours as
rambunctious times filled with baseball with his brothers, Richard
Nixon recalls how he had to help in the orchards or at the family
gas station after school. And only then could he do his homework.
It’s probably no coincidence that Nixon’s childhood violin is on
display at the entrance to the exhibit – you can practically hear
its plaintive notes wherever Nixon turns up in the exhibit hall.
In 1934, Nixon’s report card from Whittier College shows him with
all A’s, except for one B in P.E. A year earlier, he had written an
essay, “What Can I Believe.” It’s pure Nixon: earnest, grim,
self-pity posing as modesty, essentially saying nothing:
...I found that far from being a logically
minded college student, I was completely lost in attempting any
close analysis of my ideas and methods. However, I shall place my
ideas about certain philosophical problems before the reader and let
him see what a jumbled mess can be made of a man’s brain and ideas
by a modern college education.
Cue Nixon’s violin.
If Nixon was as dour in his youth as he was as commander-in-chief,
Franklin Roosevelt was as ebullient – and just as lacking in
As befits the son of the patrician class, FDR was schooled at home
by private tutors until he was 14. Then he attended the Groton
School in Massachusetts. From there, in 1900 at age 18 he wrote
My Darling Mama and Papa,
I have a part in the play at last and entirely by accident.
He explained that his classmate Jimmy Jackson had come down with
“rheumatic fever and water on the knee.” Jimmy was so sick that he
went home and would miss school for the rest of the year. So
Roosevelt took Jimmy’s part in the school play.
I suppose it is criminal to rejoice but I
can’t help it!!!!
Roosevelt, along with all the presidents who were educated until
mid-century, studied Latin. Even Eisenhower who, the joke went,
spoke English as if it was his second language. Even Gerald Ford,
who got mostly C’s in the dead tongue. (He got his best grades in
“Physical Training.”) With such an emphasis on Latin, it’s a wonder
that American relations with the Vatican aren’t better than they
There were other subjects that schools have since dropped into the
dustbin of history. Harry S Truman had a hygiene class. George H.W.
Bush had a citizenship class.
Then there are the exhibit’s photos. Lyndon Johnson in bow ties.
Bill Clinton leaning on his sax on his 12th birthday. And the elder
Bush gathered with members of Yale’s secret Skull and Bones society
around a table with a skull and crossbones embroidered on the
bunting. You half expect these guys to be wearing eye patches and a
parrot on their shoulders. But maybe if they did, they’d have to
kill you. I have no clue how these secret societies work.
So was Ronald Reagan a scamp? Was Jimmy Carter a cutup? Did Lyndon
Johnson leave bags of fertilizer on neighbors' porches, then ring
the bell and run away? Was Harry Truman any cleaner for the hygiene
classes he took?
These questions will have to wait for an earthier exhibit. Something
approaching an answer would be joyful news indeed.
2007 by David