Presidential gifts exhibit at FDR Museum in Hyde Park

Luella Smith of Inglewood, California sent President Roosevelt this handmade silk vest on January 3, 1944. In a letter that accompanied her gift she noted: “I want you to have your picture made in it and a photo sent to me to put on my stand so that I can admire my boy in the White House, I know you are busy but it sure would make me happy.” Smith enclosed several pot holders for Eleanor Roosevelt with the vest. (Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum)

Nowadays, political gifts always tend to be discussed either in hushed tones or as part of bellicose charges tied to graft and the threat of bribery. But times weren’t always quite so, well, combed-over and histrionic. Consider the new exhibit that opens at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum this weekend, “The Spirit of the Gift: Gifts of State and Affection.” It takes its name from a line in FDR’s first inaugural address, in which he stated, so sonorously, that given how he saw the very position of the presidency as a gift  bestowed upon him by the people, “In the spirit of the gift I take it.”

The resulting exhibit displays gifts that Roosevelt and his first lady received from Joseph Stalin, Walt Disney, Roy Rogers, Shirley Temple and the Dalai Lama of Tibet, as well as ordinary citizens and the likes of a Polish airman who built an aircraft model from pieces of a downed German warplane, and a colorful vest with hundreds of buttons from a woman in California who saw FDR as “her boy.” To lend a contemporary and stabilizing air to the exhibit, there’s also a treasure trove of gifts given to president Barack and first lady Michelle Obama, on loan from the Presidential Materials Division of the National Archives and Records Administration.

What’s on view ranges from a gold tiara with colored stones from the Atlas Mountains given to Eleanor Roosevelt by the Sultan of Morocco while President Roosevelt attended the Casablanca Conference with Winston Churchill and Charles De Gaulle in early 1943 to an oil painting depicting President Obama in a pose reminiscent of FDR – with fedora hat and cigarette-holder – and a chew toy sent to President Obama’s dog, Bo, by Larry the Cat, the official cat of 10 Downing Street. It makes one truly appreciate the artfulness, and utmost diplomacy, of the best gift-giving always.

“The Spirit of the Gift: Gifts of State and Affection” opens to the general public on Saturday, April 25 in the William J. vanden Heuvel Gallery in the FDR Presidential Library for the remainder of the year, with a free 7 p.m. reception this Friday, April 24.


“The Spirit of the Gift: Gifts of State and Affection” opening reception, Friday, April 24, 7 p.m., 4079 Albany Post Road (Route 9), Hyde Park; (845) 486-7745,

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