Monday, January 19, 2009

Know Your Presidents

A couple of months ago, I was on the verge of canceling my subscription to the Tribune all together, or maybe everything but the Sunday edition. Not because the quality is down under its new ownership -- even though it is, considering how much talent has been fired lately -- but because the paper edition, sad to say, just seemed like an unnecessary expense.

Canceling isn't something you can do via the paper's web site or automated phone system. You have to talk to a human being for that, probably so the customer service rep can have a go at talking you out of it. Which she did in my case. As soon as I broached the idea of going newspaper-free, she immediately offered a serious discount on the four-times-a-week delivery we've been getting for years, about half the former price. So I let myself be talked into it.

Yesterday the Tribune had a special section about the inauguration, the first page of which is mostly taken up of a graphic by one Ed Lam. Barack Obama stands at the podium at the capitol, as he will tomorrow, giving his inaugural address. His forty-two predecessors are seated behind him, as they will be tomorrow only in spirit, though I suppose the two Bushes, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter will be around in the flesh. Forty-two because, as we all should know, Grover Cleveland counts as 22nd and 24th president.

I haven't been able to find the artwork on line, except here. But I have it front of me. Some of the mini-portraits are clearly based on famous photographs or paintings of the various presidents. I recognize some of the images, such as that of Franklin Pierce -- making photos was hard in those days, so there aren't very many of him. Lam obviously used this image, down to the somewhat disheveled hair. Jefferson looks like he does on the $2 bill, in case anyone remembers that, and Jackson looks like he did on the old "small head" $20 bill.

The presidents don't seem to be arrayed in any particular order: chronological, by party or even by historical reputation, though I have to note that Kennedy is close to Obama, and likewise Washington, FDR and Lincoln are close by. But so are Bush the younger, William Howard Taft and Martin Van Buren.

A few of the presidents have odd expressions. Jimmy Carter has a demented smile. George Bush the elder looks like he really, really has to pee. Bill Clinton is awfully thoughtful-looking, with his hand on his chin, the only president to do so. James Buchanan's visage, also based on a well-known photo, is as dour as his term of office, and Ronald Reagan almost looks cocky. Ike looks determined. Woodrow Wilson, who usually showed a stern old school-master face, seems to be looking right at Obama in disdain. Which, from what I understand, would have been his reaction at the prospect of a black president.

The presidents aren't identified on the first page, so as a true presidential buff, I sat down and noted how many of them I could name without checking the key on another page. The result: 41 out of 43. I have to brag about that. The hardest ones, of course, were late 19th-century graybeard presidents, and indeed I mixed up Garfield and Hayes, though I'm glad to report that I got Benjamin Harrison right.

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