In his just-released second-term photo, President Obama flashes a wide smile.
There hasn't been anything like it since 1977 when Jimmy Carter established a
record for the toothiest presidential grin.
Looking at the gallery of White House images, we see that no president, not
one, dared to crack even a slight smile until Gerald Ford revealed a few front
teeth in his 1974 photo. It looked more like a smirk than a smile, and considering
how Ford's presidency came about, maybe it was. Regardless, it established a
trend in which all presidents smiled for the camera – until 2009.
Barack Obama, despite his mighty incisors, broke the chain of smiles in his
first term photo, choosing to go with a rather somber expression. Then, for his
second term: Pow! The president is smiling broadly.
Although vice presidential smiles don't count for much, the Obama-Biden pairing
has more dental sparkle than any administration in history. Of course, President
Obama seems to flash his ultra-engaging smile at just the right moments, while
Mr. Biden sometimes seems unable to rein his in, as was proved in last fall’s
vice presidential debate.
Like most things presidential, the question of how a Commander-in-Chief should
look in his official portrait began with George Washington. It’s often
said that Washington had false teeth made of wood, making smiling difficult.
That’s only half true; he did have false teeth, but they were made of ivory
and other expensive materials. Yet he did find smiling problematic because, according
to numerous historians, his false teeth were spring-loaded, and he feared that
if he cracked a smile his mouth might fly open.
You’ll never see a picture of John Adams smiling, because he lost all
his teeth and refused to wear false ones. Abe Lincoln was also beset by dental
woes, having had his jaw broken as a dentist pulled one of his teeth. Jimmy Carter’s
mother, Lillian, once told a reporter that her son had “perfect teeth.” She
added that he was, occasionally, “overzealous about flossing.”
In modern times, presidents pose for an official White House photo while in
office, and then after leaving office authorize an official oil painting, for
which they have an opportunity to reconsider their pose and facial expression.
Jimmy Carter’s portrait shows none of the teeth that flash in his official
photo. Richard Nixon seems a bit more cheerful in his portrait than he ever did
in office. George W. Bush is smiling in both images, but in his portrait removes
his jacket, making him the only U.S. president whose official portrait shows
him in shirtsleeves.
Barack Obama is the first president to have his official photo taken with
a digital camera. According to experts it shows some evidence of being Photoshopped
to improve the lighting.
As Mr. Obama begins his second term, he seems to have planted clues in his
two official photos to keep historians guessing. Was his somber expression in
2009 an indication of uncertainty in the job? Did he feel overwhelmed by the
weight of history as he became the first black president?
Why the big smile in 2013? Is the president still giddy over his surprisingly
wide re-election margin? Is he sending a message to opponents in Congress that,
like the banks, he’s now too big to fail? And four years hence, which way
will the Obama oil painting go: serious expression, or 1,000-watt smile?
It’s too bad the administration didn’t follow up on the suggestion
to mint one of those trillion-dollar coins and put Mr. Obama’s picture
on it. Would he frown at the size of the national debt? Or, with great confidence,
would he smile all the way to the bank?
(c) Peter Funt. This column was originally distributed by the Cagle Syndicate.