How delightful it is to receive a gift! How special it makes you feel, right? Everyone likes to receive a gift, right? But, what if you are the President of the United States and the gift comes from a foreign country?
Kings and queens, chiefs, premiers, presidents and all manner of heads of state have exchanged gifts almost as long as there has been a civilized world. Gifts have been a symbol of respect between people of different cultures, a symbol of peaceful coexistence and international cooperation, even friendship.
But when our country was a young democracy, our leaders felt that accepting gifts from foreign countries was way too dangerous. It could easily become a bribe. But, on the other hand, refusing gifts was impolite and could be considered by some as downright offensive. So, in spite of our high ideals, every president since George Washington has accepts gifts from foreign leaders on behalf of the American people.
In the early days of our country, gifts from foreign dignitaries had to be approved by Congress. After they received this approval, the gifts could become the personal property of the recipient --- the president. But things became more complicated as the United States gained prominence around the world and today the President, like every other officer or employee of the Federal Government, is prohibited from receiving personal gifts from foreign governments and from official foreign interests without the consent of Congress. And in 1928 a division of protocol was created at the White House (The Office of Presidential Correspondence) to help organize the gifts the president receives (and gives). Today all foreign gifts received by the president are sent to the National Archives and are not kept personally by the president.
But there is more! In 1966 Congress passed The Foreign Gifts and Declarations Act. It was needed because some of the Arab kings brought the president expensive gifts such as luxury cars and fine horses. And it really was not appropriate and certainly did not look good for the president to accept something so extravagant from a foreign head of state. The new rule put a limit to the value of a gift a president could accept. The limit is currently set at $375 (as of January 2014).
Here are some of the more interesting gifts received by American presidents from foreign dignitaries:
The Republican Baptists of Cheshire, MA presented Thomas Jefferson with a 1,235-pound block of mammoth cheese in honor of his election.
Rutherford B. Hayes
In 1880, Queen Victoria gave President Rutherford B. Hayes an ornate desk carved out of timber from the British ship H.M.S Resolute. That desk is now a fixture in the Oval Office. Many presidents have sat behind it and used it faithfully.
A French diplomat gave President Theodore Roosevelt six bisque figurines designed by French sculptor Agathon Leondard and produced at the Sevres Porcelain Factory. The design was based on dances created by the American modern dancer Loie Fuller. Ms. Fuller based her dances on the flow of movement and light. She often used colored lights, scarves and other props to augment her performances. The figurines were on view at the White House throughout President Roosevelt’s period in the White House.
While in the White House, the pet population belonging to the Roosevelt family increased at an alarming rate. This is because foreign dignitaries often sent animals as gifts. Once when given a coyote, Theodore Roosevelt allowed it to roam free on the White House grounds, terrifying the staff and visitors (I’m sure our charming Quentin greatly approved of this freedom!) The president also received a live lion and zebra from the King of Abyssinia (Ethiopia) but, thank goodness, he did not allow these animals the run of the White House grounds!
Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ)
In 1967 President Lyndon Baines Johnson arrived at the Vatican in Rome on December 23rd. To honor his guests’ arrival Pope Paul VI gave the president a beautiful 15th century oil painting of a Nativity scene featuring the Virgin Mary, Joseph, and the newborn baby Jesus being watched over by angels.
The prime minister of the United Kingdom once gave LBJ a Burberry coat that was too small.
LBJ had a gift for Pope Paul V1 as well --- a bronze bust of himself --- Lyndon Johnson. LBJ had about two hundred busts of himself made as potential gifts. Some of them were white marble-ish in appearance and others were bronze-looking.
President Nixon received a panda from China.
Mexican President Jose Lopez Portillo gave President Carter a metamorphic portrait, in which many different objects were combined on a canvas to create Carter's face.
George W. Bush
President George W Bush once received 300 pounds of raw lamb from the president of Argentina.
The president of Bulgaria gave President Bush a puppy.
Gifts to our presidents are located in the National Archives or are transferred to a Presidential Library when a president leaves office. That is -- all except live puppies and stinky cheese!
They are a bit of American history catalogued, tucked away and carefully cared for.
Main photo courtesy of Quartz