Foundations: hickory, stone, character

As most occasions of its kind do, the recent state of the union address provoked appraisals of the president’s communication skills. Whether one views the event as a success or failure is often tied to one’s alignment with the president’s particular political viewpoint. This is hardly new. As long as presidents have given speeches, someone else has volunteered a critique.

What has changed in recent years is the amount of coverage given to major presidential addresses. So too, has the amount of “analysis” increased. On Wednesday morning, a Republican respondent, Sen. Mark Rubio (R – FL), was omnipresent across all the early news programs. Presidential historians and all manner of pundits were also in nauseating abundance.

It is axiomatic that some presidents are more effective in their public addresses. Ronald Reagan comes to mind. So does Franklin Roosevelt. There are many others we could likewise enshrine in the pantheon of great presidential communicators.

There is one name, however, that is rarely mentioned, but bears remembering: James K. Polk. President Polk is arguably America’s first true multimedia president.

While not the first president to be photographed (that honor goes to William Henry Harrison), Polk was the first to be photographed while in office. Some of those earliest Polk administration photographs also include the first photographs of the White House and of the president’s cabinet.

Similarly, Polk was the first president to have his inauguration reported by telegraph. Samuel Morse, inventor of the telegraph, sent the transcription personally. While a telegraph message may not seem all that impressive in an era of tweets, in its day it was monumental. It meant instantaneous dissemination of the inaugural address, instead of the typical delay of days and weeks.

Polk was also the first U.S. president to have his entrance accompanied by the performance of “Hail to the Chief.” A possibly apocryphal telling holds that the first lady, Sarah Polk, instituted the custom as a way of bringing attention to her husband, whose short stature often made for an underwhelming entrance.

The Polk White House was the first to be illuminated by gaslight. It also saw the first presidential Thanksgiving Dinner. That said, Polk was neither ribald nor overly festive. This is evidenced by the fact that he banned intoxicants from the executive mansion.

A common thread of modern trite punditry likes to measure the toll of the presidency on a given office holder by tracking the amount of newly grown gray hair as each year of his term passes. Had color photography been invented, Polk’s tenure might have made good fodder for this media pastime.

A famous Polk quote goes: “No President who performs his duties faithfully and conscientiously can have any leisure.”

Polk was just 50 years old when he assumed office. When he voluntarily left four years later, he was haggard and visibly aged. At age 53 (and 225 days) — just three months after leaving office — Polk died of exhaustion.

This in turn evokes another famous remark from Polk: “I prefer to supervise the whole operations of the Government myself rather than entrust the public business to subordinates, and this makes my duties very great.”

Polk was often referred to as “Young Hickory,” a nickname he earned as a student of Andrew Jackson (Old Hickory). Hickory is a very hard wood, dense and resistant. In this vein “Young Hickory” is an apt turn for Polk.

More than two millennia before Polk would assume office, the ancient Greeks told stories of Atlas, the bearer of the heavens. As many of us would, Atlas attempted relief from the burden. He even resorted to trickery. Having once been duped by Atlas, another Titan — Perseus — turned him to stone.

As both Polk and Atlas came to recognize, the burdens of office are heavy. If done fully, they often compact the holder — transforming him, hardening him, exacting a great price. Such are the wages of greatness.