Lyndon Baines Johnson once said, “The presidency has made every man who occupied it, no matter how small, bigger than he was, and no matter how big, not big enough for its demands.” Johnson was, apparently, 6 feet 3 ½ inches tall and weighed 216 pounds, but this fact does nothing to dispel the image of him as a small plastic figurine, shadowy and eclipsed, in Alex Forman’s Tall, Slim & Erect: Portraits of the Presidents. Nor do I seem to care about Johnson’s height, weight, or anything else so mundane when faced with the notion that he insisted on discussing official matters with other political figures while he was using the White House bathroom. Oh, and also, he washed and reused Styrofoam cups. It is these facts, pieced together from a multitude of sources—books, hearsay, interviews—that Forman cuts and pastes to form the collage of portraits of American presidents—or at least, the same thirty-six Presidents that famed toymaker Louis Marx once recreated as small plastic figurines.
Forman’s book is like the gossip magazine you read in line at the supermarket after checking over your shoulder and then shamefully toss into the mix, hoping it gets swallowed up by bananas and milk to the public’s nosy eye. You want so badly to read the facts in Forman’s portraits – Andrew Jackson had a problem with incessant slobbering, Woodrow Wilson was obsessed with his ugliness, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was anorexic, Hiram Ulysses S. Grant had unusually small hands and feet, and the “S” in his name stood for absolutely nothing. And yet these collaged facts, grabbed from many places, also disturb us. We almost turn away. We almost scream, “TMI! I Don’t want to know that the Presidents were ugly, farting, fearful human beings!” But we keep reading. We take these reproductions of reproductions as truth. We believe. We don’t close the gossip magazine.
Tall, Slim & Erect brings to the forefront the issue of what, then, a portrait actually is. A portrait is a representation, and by that virtue it is contrived. None of the text in this book was written by Forman, and yet she created the portraits by deciding to relate the information that she selected, and in the order she desired. She did not mold the plastic miniature models used as visual representations, but she decided to use them in lieu of photographs or paintings. Some of the Presidents’ portraits are filled with mentions of physical maladies; others are more about the Presidents’ wives, assassins, and ancestry than the Presidents themselves. Lincoln’s entire portrait revolves around his clinical depression and horrible marriage to Mary Todd, with not a word about his contributions to the Thirteenth Amendment. This bears the question: who is directing the image our portraits convey? Do others make our portraits, even becoming part of them—or do they merely interpret them? These facts and phrases regarding the Presidents do exist, after all, and come from real sources. But someone even before Forman chose to include these phrases somewhere, and to exclude others, and Forman simply continues in this long lineage of pastiche. Certainly the Presidents themselves might have hoped for the omission or inclusion of very different facts to be remembered by.
And so would many Americans who want to think of their leaders as above common man; the same lineage of people who did not want to know that Franklin Delano Roosevelt was confined to a wheelchair from polio, or that Eisenhower’s bowel movements were irregular shortly before his death. These portraits reveal a side of America that many do not want to face, a country where Presidents lie and cheat, wrestle with clinical depression, profess liberty but enact doctrines of oppression and imperialism. But by humanizing these mythical men, the portraits also speak to a pervading sense of wounded yet pervading patriotism: yes, Lincoln caught syphilis from a prostitute in 1832, but he also liked cats and kittens, and so could you and I. Millard Fillmore may have been illiterate until adulthood, but he was able to become President—an embodiment of the mythical “American Dream”. Moreover, he ate soup for his last meal, and so could you and I. Yes, Van Buren drove around in an elegant stagecoach while the city around him was mired in poverty—and he probably slept at night—but so do you and I. As readers we become inextricably engaged with the portraits given to us, repulsed by some, defensive of others, snickering and shaking our heads at others. There are complex layers lurking in these jovial, humorous, and often base descriptions of our leaders: core beliefs regarding our Presidents, our country, and ourselves.
In the end, all of the portraits begin to blend together. Who was the morbidly obese President again? Didn’t another President have a “thing” about shaking hands? Another death by embolism? That waxy-looking miniature is just like that other waxy-looking miniature! That is, perhaps, also the point. There is a feeling of futility in it all. We are all hypocrites. We are all fearful, conniving beings. We are all disgusting, flatulent people. But still, we fight. We strive for greatness. We want love, and give love. Theodore Roosevelt said, “We must be true to ourselves, or else, in the long run, we shall be false to all others.” In another vein, Andrew Jackson said, “I am a blubber of water.” Both from such great little men just like you and I.