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Display Features Presidents’ Childhoods

For the majority of people, a collection of embarrassing, accidental relics from the awkward school years is just mom’s bad habit. If you happen to be a U.S. president, it’s called something different: funded historical research.

Ouch.

The National Archives will open a new exhibition Friday focusing on the education of American presidents, from No. 31, Herbert Hoover, to the current commander in chief. Unearthing the presidents’ pasts could have raised a few eyebrows, but “School House to White House” stays family-friendly, highlighting the figures’ extracurricular activities and educational achievements instead of potential scandals.

Some of the more endearing documents displayed are Harry Truman’s essay on “Courage” and Richard Nixon’s autobiography, both written when the future presidents were in the eighth grade. In a careful script that speaks of multiple drafts, Nixon writes, “One event that made an impression on me was the death of my youngest brother Arthur. He was born in nineteen eighteen at Yorba Linda. He was seven years old when he died. He was very well liked by everybody.” The essay earned him a 90.

Sports photos of Dwight Eisenhower’s Abilene High School baseball team and Gerald Ford on the field in Ann Arbor for the University of Michigan are featured in the “Locker Room” portion of the exhibit. That section is sure to get heavy foot traffic from the silent majority hoping to see Ronald Reagan in an awkward pre-dive squat from his days at Eureka College.

Younger visitors struggling to make the grade (and older ones obsessing about whether they ever did) can take heart in the report cards of former leaders, some of which are hardly shining. John F. Kennedy’s Harvard University transcript elucidates that the future president had some trouble in his first two years at college, earning seven C’s and one D before turning things around to graduate cum laude. Many will find solace in George W. Bush’s success at school; in first grade he earned straight A’s, though Miss Kearns did inflate his final notes in Writing and Art.

Overall, the exhibition leans toward the cutely awkward and simply interesting side of presidents’ pasts. And while the possibility of having one’s middle-school relics on display may make most people run for cover, it seems unlikely any of these men are roiling. After all, becoming president was a sacrifice they were willing to make.

“School House to White House: The Education of the Presidents” is on display through Jan. 1, 2008, in the Lawrence F. O’Brien Gallery of the National Archives, on Constitution Avenue between Seventh and Ninth streets Northwest.

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