White House Cosmopolitanism

Following the first seder ever held in the White House, The Guardian’s US correspondent, Michael Tomasky, has a post arguing that the Obamas “are our first cosmopolitan first couple.”  Like the widespread myth that Barack Obama is the first urban US president (he is in fact the third), this is not the case.   Before the Obamas, Presidents John F. Kennedy (mentioned briefly by Tomasky, albeit grudgingly), Herbert Hoover and Theodore Roosevelt were as cosmopolitan as the Obamas.
TR was born into a family that had already lived in Manhattan for over 200 years, and his grandfather was arguably the richest man in New York City.  Roosevelt spent his 10th birthday in Europe, as part of a year-long Grand Tour his father had organized to educate the Roosevelt children, visiting Britain, the Low Countries, Germany, Switzerland and Italy.  He married his second wife in London, while staying in Brown’s Hotel, perhaps the most expensive hotel in the city.  While Governor of New York state, his dinner table included guests such as the Governor-General of Canada and a young English journalist named Winston S. Churchill.  That TR traveled west to the Dakotas to find himself after the death of his first wife, and so gained a reputation as a courageous frontiersman (a reputation fully deserved) is only evidence of a wider cosmopolitanism, not a provincialism; for instance, his western experience reinforced in him a respect for others according to their values and achievements, regardless of their social status or ethnic origin.  TR was the first US President to dine at the White House with a black American guest, Booker T. Washington in 1901, and he appointed the first Jewish-American to a Cabinet post, Oscar Strauss as Secretary of Commerce and Labor in 1906.  And TR had such a tendency to claim ancestry from different ethnic groups (Dutch, German, Irish, among others), he was nick-named “Old 57 Varieties”.
Hoover, too, had traveled widely before he became President, working in the mines of Western Australia and in China, and seeking to alleviate the suffering of refugees in Europe during World War I.  His fortune may have been ill-gotten, but he declined Lloyd George’s offer of a place in the Imperial War Cabinet during WW I in order to devote his efforts to raising money for war relief.  Whatever he was  – a scheming, get-rich-quick merchant before WW I, a do-nothing President paralyzed by ideology during the Great Depression, and full of self-righteous sanctimony afterwards – Hoover was certainly no provincial.   Indeed, both Hoover and TR were geographically restless – people we’d call Post-Industrial Nomads if they had lived a century later.
And even some other recent Presidents, although perhaps not as cosmopolitan as Obama, were not as provincial as George W. Bush or Ronald Reagan.  Eisenhower had seen overseas military service, in Europe during WWII, as had JFK, LBJ, Dick Nixon and George H. W. Bush,  in Australia and the Pacific.   Bush 41 had also been the US representative in China before becoming President.   Obama is certainly exceptional, but he’s not unique.

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