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“Tokens and Treasures:

Gifts to 12 Presidents”

to February 2

Say someone invited you for tea. Do you think sending them a bejeweled silver tea set would be an appropriate gesture of thanks? It might be if you were the crown prince of Norway, and your hosts were Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.

The American president is in an awkward position, giftwise. As head of state, he or she is symbol of the nation and object for all sorts of America-loving gift-givers. As head of government, he or she is also the target for equal numbers of self-serving favor-curriers. So the chief doesn’t get to keep the goodies. The feds do. After he supped at Hyde Park, the visiting Norwegian royal probably knew the Roosevelts were doing OK for home furnishings. But he probably didn’t know that his tea set, after a half-century languishing in a library storeroom, would be displayed as part of a National Archives exhibit.

The crown prince was in good company. The Archives’ amusing “Tokens and Treasures” exhibit catalogs presents given by high and humble alike to chief executives from Hoover to Clinton. And while the display includes foreign treasures that should make us gush, it is the collected American tokens that make the exhibit worth a peek. Reflecting both the history of the times and the continuity of Americans’ feelings toward their leaders, the handiwork of the folk offers a better lesson about America and the presidency than the high-paying ravings of election-year political pundits.

When President Clinton was sent a saxophone-shaped chair by Coloradan Rebecca Crain, he may not have realized the gift was part of a historical chain. Indeed, personal presidential symbols are popular. One Hardin Cox, of Missouri, sent Jimmy Carter a weather vane shaped like a peanut. John F. Kennedy received any number of rocking chairs. A shirt sent to Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1958 incorporated just about every sign of Ike’s administration and private life: golf clubs on the collar, five stars for his military rank, Kansas sunflowers for his home state, an embroidered rendering of his Pennsylvania farm, Texas longhorn steer for the state of his birth, plus the Washington Monument thrown in for good measure.

Caricatures are also popular, ranging from the ordinary (an exaggerated LBJ sitting at a miniature desk) to the baffling (Antitank Shell FDR). Smarmy exhibit text suggests such pieces reflect a loving, teasing relationship with the president, but the truth is much simpler: These guys are ubiquitous! Faced with gifts’ allusions to presidential pets, home states, life histories, and families (such as that offered by a very frightening chair given to George Bush bearing the likeness of his wife), it becomes clear that it’s the universally known elements of the presidential persona—what the people just can’t get away from—that they are affectionately irreverent toward.

Personal features aside, themes and forms vary from president to president. Artists’ styles veer from authentic faux-folksy (Grandma Moses’ rendition of Ike’s Gettysburg farm) to artistically flamboyant (Elaine de Kooning’s JFK) to revolting faux-folksy (a generic Reagan-as-cowboy print). As the decades pass, gifts range from ashtrays (one in the form of a P-38 fighter, given to FDR during WWII by Sgt. Anthony Mechowski through USO intermediary Gary Cooper) to Hugh Hefner–style robes (like the one given to late-’70s nonswinger Jimmy Carter). There are commemorations of proud milestones (like the Bicentennial dress—yes, dress—given to Gerald Ford by Mrs. Becaw’s third-grade class in Columbus, Ohio) and commentaries on issues du jour (like the “Kick Drugs Out of America” cowboy boots made for George Bush by Texan Rocky Carroll).

And from time to time there are even some politics. While “Tokens and Treasures,” in true ’90s Washington style, shies away from anything controversial, it takes note not only of some politically approving gifts, but of some protest, too. Reagan’s opposition to abortion won him a necklace complete with gold fetuses from one particularly strong ally. LBJ’s expansion of aid programs is seen here: The budget increase during his administration was so great that an entire bulgur bag was sewn into a shirt by one grateful partisan. Meanwhile, Reagan’s trip to Auschwitz won him a Nazi armband from one protester. And LBJ’s war on poverty was greeted at the Thompson & Johnson Equipment Co. by an order of tie clips, one of which was sent to the President: “I fight poverty…I work,” it reads.

Ultimately, “Tokens and Treasures” tells a story of our times using a uniquely American form of folk art. One doubts the queen of Belgium (whose country, post-WWII, gave Truman a measly urn reading “Belgium Will Remember”) would ever receive a “Cowboy & Hitler” statuette. And one doubts the president of Pakistan (who gave Reagan a portrait done in lapis, diamonds, and rubies) could ever be given a refrigerator-magnet likeness. What does this imply about American democracy? As usual, it means something nice and something not so nice. We hold egalitarian notions that our leaders are as knowledgeable of kitchen tchotchkes as we are, but we understand our leaders not as political powers but as contrived public personae. But it’s still probably better to give them puppets, dresses, and weather vanes that belong in museums than to give them things like the chandelier donated by de Gaulle’s France—which looks like it was stolen from one.CP