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Editor's Note, January/February 2001

The Presidency

By Mary Lou Beatty | HUMANITIES, January/February 2001 | Volume 22, Number 1

Every four years brings a familiar ritual: Ruffles and Flourishes, a swearing-in, a speech, a longish parade down Pennsylvania Avenue, and as dusk falls, a thinning in the grandstands as many slip away to dress for a round of parties that night.

The inaugural of a president has never been simple.

For George Washington, the term "strenuous" might be more apt. For his 1789 inaugural he traveled eight days from Mount Vernon to New York City. It was muddy that spring, historians report, but Washington's trip was triumphal -- he was greeted by banners, flowers, and his soldiers from the Continental Army and their wives and children.

No capital had been settled. Eventually Washington, D.C. was chosen. John Adams succeeded Washington; then power shifted and Thomas Jefferson was sworn in, on March 4, 1801, at a ceremony in the Senate chamber. "Since the House of Representatives did not elect him until February 17," biographer Dumas Malone notes, "Jefferson had only a little more than two weeks in which to prepare his inaugural address. This was somewhat less time then he had to write the Declaration of Independence." For two weeks after the ceremony, Malone continues, Jefferson remained at a boardinghouse near the Capitol before moving into "the big box of a President's House a mile away." Jefferson had already selected his secretary, the young Captain Meriwether Lewis. As fate would have it, Lewis would become the man who would carry out Jefferson's vision of finding a way west across the American continent.

The minutiae of life -- what these presidents thought, how they acted and reacted in offstage moments -- is the stuff of history. Over the years the Endowment has supported the collection and study of presidential papers, including those of Washington, Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, James K. Polk, Andrew Johnson, Ulysses S. Grant, and Dwight D. Eisenhower. In this issue of Humanities, the scholars of the Eisenhower project describe how Ike's stature as a World War II hero let him maneuver around the military as he pursued his Cold War strategy. We also hear the thoughts of historian Michael Beschloss on the shape of the presidency in the coming century.

As the American presidency has changed over the years, from coverage by print to coverage by film -- and now the Internet -- so have NEH-supported projects. Film subjects have ranged from the political odyssey of George Wallace to a virtual presidential alphabet: FDR and TR and LBJ. In February, the American Experience and WGBH Interactive takes a further step: an NEH-supported interactive multimedia project will debut as companion to a new film, Abraham and Mary Lincoln: A House Divided. The project will serve as a model for education by tying new technology to existing resources.

Continuing in this linking of new and old, we examine the fabric of our American culture not just through our presidential past but through some exemplary people of the present. We profile a dozen people who have added to the richness of our culture. They are the winners of this year's National Humanities Medal. They range from a Nobel Laureate to a teacher of the homeless, and they have some compelling stories to tell us.