Exploring the White House and Beyond

After passing through security, visitors to the White House take a guided tour of the famous building. During this hourlong trek, their eyes travel from Duncan Phyfe furniture to once-in-a-lifetime distance views.

Although ex-presidents lack formal constitutional status, they do hold a certain sway in the American political system. In this series, New York Times bestselling author Kate Andersen Brower (The Residence and First Women) explores how past presidents construct their lives after leaving the Executive Mansion.

The Residence

The home of a person, or an animal, is called his or her residence. The term can also refer to the official home of someone in a position of power — a monarch, a head of state, or a president. For more than a century, the White House has served as the official residence of the President of the United States.

The first presidential home to be built on this site was selected by George Washington in 1791. The cornerstone was laid the following year, and construction began soon after. By the time President John Adams moved into the building in 1817, it was far from complete.

Over the years, the President’s House underwent several major renovations. In 1902, Theodore Roosevelt began a significant renovation of the house, overseen by the New York architectural firm McKim, Mead, and White. The result was a building that was both beautiful and functional, and it helped transform the White House into the iconic symbol that it is today.

When Donald Trump assumed office, he brought with him a host of problems that threatened to undo many of Obama’s achievements. His erratic leadership deepened America’s racial and cultural divides and eroded faith in our institutions. In addition, he shattered the office’s centuries-old norms and traditions by governing by whim and tweet.

It may be decades before historians fully understand the full effects of a presidency as tumultuous as Donald Trump’s. Nevertheless, it’s becoming clear that the most important legacy of this era will be the impact on the American political system.

To explore the legacy of this tumultuous time and examine its implications for our future, join us for an evening discussion with Kate Clark Lemay, Senior Historian at the National Portrait Gallery, and Julian Zelizer, Princeton University historian and editor of Mourning the Presidents. This event is free and open to the public. Please register on Eventbrite. For the best experience, we recommend you view this event on a desktop computer.

Team of Five

Theodore Roosevelt shepherded America into the 20th century – and much of his legacy reflects the changing role of the presidency. In his lifetime, the United States evolved from a weak domestically-oriented nation with imperialistic aspirations into one that began to preserve its natural resources and to view its national power as something that could be used for good. As a result, the office of the president expanded and became an object of popular obsession.

NPR’s Lulu Garcia-Navarro speaks with Princeton historian Julian Zelizer about his new edited volume, The Presidency of Barack Obama: A History. They discuss how the 45th president will be remembered by posterity and why it’s impossible to fully understand his presidency until decades from now.

Zelizer notes that while some scholars have praised Obama’s policymaking, they tend to disagree about whether he was a successful political actor – the type of person who can bring a party together and energize an electoral base. He argues that this disagreement is partly due to the fact that there has never been a comparable post-presidency, with the exception of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s two terms as the Democratic Party leader after World War II.

While Roosevelt was a highly effective politician, he was also a very complex human being. He often acted on impulses and his impulsiveness led to some of the most consequential decisions in modern American history. Nevertheless, it is important to remember that he was still an American citizen and that his decision to leave office willingly set a precedent for future presidents.

Musgrave argues that both formal laws and informal norms shape an ex-president’s obligations and opportunities. For example, current practice allows a former president to solicit giant sums of money from donors for projects related to his or her legacy project. This practice could also encourage some of the same self-interested goals that many legislators engage in, such as cultivating ties to interest groups or other constituencies that would help them in their personal lives after leaving office. This is why he advocates a change to the law that would limit the opportunity for a former president to raise funds and launch a legacy initiative after leaving office.

First in Line

The President of the United States is the Chief Executive of the country and Commander-in-Chief of its armed forces. In the course of carrying out this duty he enacts laws written by Congress, and he appoints the heads of the federal agencies that make up the Cabinet. Because of the role of the Presidency in our system of government, it is essential to have a process for transferring power from one person to another if the President becomes unable to fulfill his or her duties.

Congress established the Presidential Succession Act, which provides for a line of succession to fill an intra-term vacancy in the office of the President. The line of succession begins with the Vice President, followed by the Speaker of the House, and then the President pro tempore of the Senate. Following the Speaker and President pro tempore are cabinet secretaries, who assume their offices in the order of when the agencies they run were created.

In the event of a vacancy in the office of the President, the responsibilities are transferred to a leader in a specific order that is outlined in the Constitution and the Presidential Succession Act. In 1981, U.S. President Ronald Reagan was injured in an assassination attempt and became incapacitated. While in the hospital, Secretary of State Alexander Haig famously declared that he was “in control here.” The fact that Haig was not in the line of succession caused some controversy, but it underscored the importance of having an orderly way to transfer power.

As Americans learn more about the history of the presidency, they can gain a greater appreciation for how the institution is designed to function. They can also learn more about the people who have served as Presidents, from their early days in politics to their last moments before taking office or leaving it behind. Many former Presidents have presidential libraries or museums where visitors can see photographs and read about their time in office. They can also visit the homes where they lived and learned to navigate the complex political landscape of the country they served as President.

Mourning the Presidents

The death of a president, whether sudden or expected, while in office or decades later, is always a moment of national reckoning and reflection. In this important new collection, scholars explore how the way a presidency is remembered and understood shapes its legacy over time.

Mourning the Presidents features a wide range of archival-based scholarship, from studies of memorial spaces and material culture to analyses of the contested nature of presidential memory. Its chapters uncover parallels across generations of mourners, highlight distinctive experiences, and investigate what a president’s passing can reveal about societal fissures at critical points in American history.

While the essays in this volume examine a wide range of historical figures, they all share one key theme: how the way a presidency is remembered and interpreted is constantly shaped by a changing political landscape and culture. For example, the Civil War dominated the nation’s politics and shaped its understanding of presidential leadership for years to come, as seen in Martha Hodes’s essay on the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, or Camille Davis’s analysis of the funeral exercises of Zachary Taylor.

The essays in this volume also show how the ceremonial aspects of a president’s funeral and his or her legacy have evolved. The earliest observances (such as J. Q. Adams’s 1826 order noting the death of Thomas Jefferson) called for members of the military to wear mourning crape on their left arms and for all executive departments to be closed on the day of the funeral. By 1969, however, the practice had shifted to the current set of rituals: a proclamation of a national day of mourning and an order closing all executive departments on the date of the funeral.

The essays in Mourning the Presidents will enlighten and engage readers, and help them understand the changing dynamics of the presidency and how it has been perceived over time. This is an essential work for students of the presidency and for those interested in the broader study of American culture, history, and memory.

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