Portraits of Our Nation’s Past

Drake students outside of the White House. Photo by Jill Van Wyke

Drake students outside of the White House. Photo by Jill Van Wyke

By Kylie Jacobsen

While walking in the halls of the White House this morning, I noticed a bunch of familiar faces staring down at me. The portraits of our past presidents and first ladies were so elaborate and beautiful, I instantly felt drawn to each one. I constantly looked to the walls and would point out my favorite presidents and first ladies. Even though the entire experience of touring the White House was amazing and I will never forget it, I would be lying if I said I didn’t spend the majority of the time looking at the walls.

Many of the portraits were of people I didn’t know. Sure, I vaguely remembered some of the portraits from my history textbook in high school, but I couldn’t bring names to faces. Nonetheless, I was still intrigued by each one.

As I traveled through all of the elegant rooms in the White House, I made sure to look up at each portrait in every room. However, the most breathtaking part of the tour was towards the end. It was the final room, and the yellow walls featured a variety of the official portraits of recent presidents. The very first portrait I saw was of John F. Kennedy.

I have seen pictures of this portrait countless times throughout my life. In almost every history textbook I’ve had at some point, a picture of this famous portrait has been featured. Of all the presidential portraits, JFK’s is both unique and well-known. It was painted after JFK’s assassination, and it features the president looking downward with crossed arms. The portrait had a more serious and somber tone than other presidential portraits in the room, which drew me to it. A Secret Security agent informed my classmates that the portrait of JFK is the only one that does not rotate within the White House. This adds to the grandeur of the portrait.

Kylie Jacobsen outside of the White House. Photo by Kate Brightwell

Kylie Jacobsen outside of the White House. Photo by Kate Brightwell

Our entire class stared silently at the portrait. A few of my classmates began to tear up looking at the portrait, and it was a very powerful moment for all of us. I felt overwhelmed as I viewed the portrait – JFK was a president with such great potential, and his assassination was one of the greatest tragedies our country has ever faced.

I separated from my classmates for a moment to view some of the other portraits in the room. I turned around and immediately saw the portrait of President Ronald Reagan. I stood alone as I viewed the portrait, giving myself a moment to reflect. Once again, I had seen pictures of the portrait a multitude of times in various textbooks and internet articles. But, just looking at the picture in some textbook does not even compare to seeing the portrait in-person. I was breathless.

Those that are closest to me know that I am the world’s biggest Cold War dork. I have read countless books about the Cold War and have viewed more History Channel documentaries about it than anyone my age would like to admit. Viewing the portrait of the president who oversaw the collapse of the Soviet Union and proclaimed the famous words “Tear down this wall” is an experience I will always treasure. I found myself tearing up while looking at the portrait, completely speechless.

There was one final portrait in the room that I will never forget. George W. Bush’s portrait was featured at the front of the room, and as I viewed it, I thought about his legacy. Almost everyone has a negative view of President Bush. Whenever he comes up in a conversation, people are quick to criticize his actions and intelligence level (I don’t think any of us can forget the incorrect pronunciation of nuclear).

While I am not necessarily a fan of Bush’s decisions in office, seeing his portrait made me think about how he is just a regular person at the end of the day. He makes mistakes, just like the rest of us. Presidents are not “godly” figures or superior beings compared to the rest of us, even though we treat them that way. This was not just the case for President Bush, but for Reagan, JFK, and all of the other presidents who had portraits hanging on the walls.

Viewing the portraits in the White House gave me a perspective on the presidents that I’ve never had. You constantly hear people say terrible things about presidents and their actions in office. By looking at their portraits, you realize that they are just regular people. They may live in the most elite residence in the nation, but at the end of the day, we are all human.

You can view all of the official portraits of U.S. Presidents here.

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