HALL OF PRESIDENTS
“Family History is a dish of selected
cuts, sliced thin, served cold, bloodless
Salman Rushdie in “Midnight’s Children”
“but in my country you know there is
nothing hereditary in public affairs”
John Quincy Adams
Of all the attractions in Disney World my favourite has always been “The Hall of Presidents”. It is not one of the great thrill rides and, secluded away in a sleepy corner between The Haunted Mansion and the Riverboat ride in a square of buildings set in an early colonial anti-bellum town square called “Liberty Square” it is somewhat off the beaten track. Its singular attraction, according to many guides to Disney World, is the fact that the shows run regular as clockwork on the hour and half hour, and the large auditorium means there is little or no queuing. Its air conditioning-allowing one to sit comfortably out of the heat of the day- is the most obvious reason for a foreign audience to enter. The Hall itself looks like a court house, entirely disguising its 700 seat auditorium which is hidden from view out the back of the lot. The whole is set back in a purpose designed colonial square of twee timber fronted pre-independence Americana.
Entering the attraction the holding hall is disguised as the rotunda of the White House. Here one is met by the portraits of a politically correct selection of various presidents – sombre featured, stoutly framed – hung in stern and individual splendour on its oval walls. There is no place here for Messrs Nixon or Hoover who are quietly airbrushed out of Mr Disney’s history. Here, in this strangely disproportioned room the Presidents look down on the gum-chewing, coke-swilling audience standing on the only carpet outside the White House allowed to be decorated with the great seal of the President of the United States. On entering the auditorium the audience are presented with a short historically flawed film pressing the new version of American history and her pre destined role in the world; emphasising firmly the new standard mythology of America, a diorama of the Presidents is presented by a collection of automata dressed up in period costume. They sit on the stage ranked in tiers of chairs and bathed in a circle of light, separated from their audience as if waiting for a wedding photographer to capture the moment, fidgeting and talking amongst themselves.
This is one of the attractions Walt Disney personally designed – and perhaps not surprisingly it was one of his favourite creations. It is possibly one of his more “worthy” efforts, having about it a distinctly school trip quality. It is not very popular with Europeans. It is a very American piece of “history” and can leave Europeans cold, and bemused at its obvious -its blatant -propagandist messages.
That this entire exhibit enjoys official state approval is noted not just by the fact of the seal in the carpet, but that each incoming president now records a personal address for his robot twin to deliver to the hundreds of thousands of visitors who flock to Disney World.
These Presidents both automated and painted, are presented in singular manner as staunchly individual characters united solely by their rugged determination and the commonality of their office.
Individual they may have been, but looking again at them, giving them closer attention, one detects a look less singular and more that of an integrated group. It is not simply that they are drawn to some common cause, or possess that commonality that could be described as “corporate” (the uniformity one sees in large businesses where the senior management all adopt the same look, ties, and hairstyles). Perhaps it was because they all looked like they come from the same stock. To my eyes-surely to everyone’s-they do not reflect the genealogical melting pot that is the USA. America.
America likes to compare itself favourably with Britain: where the British can be seen as hidebound and America as the home, if not of the brave, then certainly the meritocratic. The truth is very different. Britain has already had its Jewish Prime Minister in Disraeli, and had its mixed race Premier in Lord Liverpool in the early nineteenth century (Liverpool was “Anglo-Indian” being of Indian and English descent and, during his time, many mixed-blood children were successfully absorbed into the British upper classes). This alone showed that at least in the nineteenth century in Britain, racial considerations were not an impediment to achieving high office as they were -and despite the success of President Obama -still are- in America. Britain had its illegitimate Prime Minister in Macdonald, who added to this electoral difficulty by being born in the greatest rural poverty. Prime Minister Eden was a divorcee, which in the 1950’s this was of greater social impact than now. (His counterpart in this position would be Reagan, but Ronald Reagan’s divorce was so far in the past before his Presidency and his marriage to Nancy so obviously close that the matter was elided over). Britain has had a woman Prime Minister in Margaret Thatcher and Edward Heath was the son of a domestic servant. Politically speaking, Britain is far more Argos than Marks & Spencer. Indeed many British Lords – members of the British Upper House- are from backgrounds far less grand than American politicians. Canning was the son of an actress at a time when actresses were commonly prostitutes. Gladstone was the son of a merchant. (Gladstone’s equivalent might be Ben Harrison but the Harrison’s lineage was longer). Asquith is more new rich than Taft and the radical Lloyd George’s Celtic, lower middle class background made him much less socially well placed than Woodrow Wilson. Stuffy and hidebound Britain might be, but in openness to the political high offices she is positively promiscuous.
After consideration of Disney’s historical confection I looked at the Presidents themselves as a group.
The genealogy of the presidents of the United States is not often discussed, but when it is, it is usually only in relation to their direct paternal line. Like the paintings on the wall we are invited to deal with each individually, and with a line that must run directly father to son only. It is a patrialineal approach for a patriarchal society.
In depictions as selective as Mr Disney’s we can often find that our attention is drawn up through a few short generations of suitably plebeian ancestry -perhaps of yeoman farmers, military figures or hard working artisans- for us to arrive in the gilded uplands of ancestry. Here we can often be invited to review -for instance- several who are descended from some suitably distant and remote royal ancestor; usually British –like King John perhaps – or maybe exotically continental like Charlemagne. The complexities of any genealogical connections are ignored, indeed decidedly avoided. Each president in his turn enjoys these “discoveries” on entering office. One can usually rely on Burke’s or some other tome of European royal genealogy to opine graciously that each president had surprising royal connections but avoiding like the plague any question of inter-relations with other incumbents. The idea, presumably, for all these presidents is that theirs was a noble line which disappeared like a duck diving under water only to bob back up later in a more conducive pond, its plumage more resplendent than ever[i]. Such eulogising is not limited to the latest family members of the Presidential family, we can find King John claimed as an ancestor of Washington, Jefferson, Madison, John Quincy Adams, both Harrisons, Taylor, Cleveland, both Roosevelts, Coolidge, Hoover, Nixon, Ford and now both Bushes.
The American mythic tradition therefore, as reinforced firmly by Disney’s cleverly constructed room, is that anyone born in the United States from whatever background can, by dint of personality, sheer hard work, clean living and dedication rise to the highest office in the land.
Many still believe that America stands for the ordinary Joe’s of life and that her political system reflects this; and, as a natural progression, that she is right to take to herself the role of leader of the free world and the beacon of freedom and democracy.
If we scratch the surface, this is not what we find.
The United States likes to portray itself as a democratic egalitarian workers paradise; a society built by the people Bruce Springsteen sings for. It is a society – we are encouraged to believe – built by the sweat of its peoples who arrived here from all over the world and who are each accepted as the equal of the next man. Such a society by its very nature would have no need of its Burkes Peerage, or a Handbook of Landed Gentry. The United States also takes a pride in itself as a society where no man is Lord or Comte or “Sir”. It sees itself as a society that has dispensed with medieval notions of primogeniture or entail. There is no need for an Almanac de Gotha de Americana. Jack is as good as his master and there are no cultural audit trails, no lines of bread in the forest, to show the way to this dark forbidden history.
What is not usually asked, and what is most certainly never volunteered, are the genealogical connections between the presidents. Rather than being the expression of the political will of their day, drawn from the ranks of the meritocracy of the people, the elected heads of state of the American people, of whatever party, can be seen, to be so interconnected that they represent not 43 presidents drawn from individually separated families, ( and it is 43 presidents not 44 because Grover Cleveland served twice as President in two non sequential terms as 22nd and 24th President) but as an interlocking oligarchy of families more reminiscent of the senatorial clans of late republican Rome or the Julian-Claudian-Flavian families of the early Roman Empire.
[i]A paraphrase of Boudain’s Jefferson’s ambassador to Madrid.