On this week’s Past Present podcast, Nicole Hemmer, Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, and Neil Young discuss Nancy Reagan, O.J. Simpson, and presidential bodies.
Nancy Reagan passed away last week at the age of 94. Niki noted most remembrances of Mrs. Reagan had taken a respectful tone, but a controversial Washington Post obituary accused her of “meddling” in her husband’s presidency. That comment has now been removed from the Washington Post article. Niki observed that controversy over Nancy Reagan originated during the Reagan presidency, spurred in part by the White House Chief of Staff Don Regan’s 1988 tell-all that revealed, among other things, that Nancy had dabbled in astrology. Neil explained that after the assassination attempt on her husband in 1981, Nancy had turned to the San Francisco astrologist, Joan Quigley, for comfort and help in planning the president’s schedule, much to the ire of Reagan’s conservative religious supporters. This reminded Natalia of how Mary Todd Lincoln held séances in the White House after the death of her son, Willie. Niki remarked Nancy’s Just Say No campaign against drugs had been one of the most successful initiatives by a First Lady. Natalia cited a Joan Didion essay during Reagan’s governorship of California had skewered Nancy as an inauthentic actress playing a part for the cameras. The accusation of inauthenticity plagued both Reagans throughout their career, Neil noted, though never regarding their love for each other. For appreciating that great love, Niki recommended the collection, I Love You, Ronnie, which contains all of Reagan’s love letters to Nancy.
O.J. Simpson is back in the news thanks to a miniseries about the 1995 murder trial of Simpson’s ex-wife and the discovery of a knife from the grounds of Simpson’s former home. Neil explained America’s fascination with the trial owed in part to Simpson’s outsized celebrity status as a famous football player and celebrity pitchman, such as his commercials for Hertz Rental Cars. Niki noted Simpson’s case wasn’t the first “trial of the century,” and pointed to the Leopold and Loeb trial of 1924 as offering several parallels to Simpson’s case, including their representation by the celebrity lawyer, Clarence Darrow. Natalia cited Jeffrey Toobin’s New Yorker article that argued the unique pre-Internet media environment of the time helped make the Simpson case so ubiquitous. Neil argued the Simpson trial was shaped by the racial politics of Los Angeles, including the recent acquittal of the police officers who had been caught on tape beating Rodney King.
Donald Trump’s private parts have become a campaign issue. Niki detailed the history of presidential phalluses, including Warren Harding’s explicit letters to his mistress, the White House tape of Lyndon Johnson ordering pants big enough to accommodate his crotch, and the Starr Report’s detailed descriptions of Bill Clinton’s anatomy. (Niki has also tweeted more examples.) Natalia noted how the bodies of presidents often have posed challenges for the nation’s leaders, including William Howard Taft’s obesity and John F. Kennedy’s covering up his physical ailments in order to present strength in the midst of the Cold War. Natalia also mentioned Jerome Karabel’s The Chosen discussed how Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s worries about his body traced back to his time at Harvard when he wasn’t strong enough to play football. Niki noted Theodore Roosevelt had used his own story of overcoming his childhood physical ailments, as detailed in his 1899 speech, “The Strenuous Life,” as a model for how the nation could strengthen itself.
What’s Making History
- Natalia discussed the anthropological study, “Why We Post,” that is investigating how different cultures use social media.
- Neil commented on how journalists have written about John F. Kennedy’s application essay to Harvard.
- Niki noted the passing of Ray Tomlinson, who invented email and rescued the @ sign from obscurity.