George H.W. Bush
That fact that George Herbert Walker Bush would find himself in a position to send White House Christmas cards came as a surprise to almost no one. A decorated World War II naval aviator and graduate of Yale University, “Bush 41” compiled one of the more impressive political resumes of any individual who ascended to the office of president. His accomplishments included two terms as a Texas congressman, an Ambassadorship to the United Nations, Chairman of the Republican National Committee, Chief of the U.S. Liaison Office in the People’s Republic of China, Director of the Central Intelligence Agency and, finally, two terms as Ronald Reagan’s Vice President. After eight years of relative peace and prosperity, Bush defeated Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis in the 1988 Presidential election. He carried 40 states and 426 (of 538) electoral votes.
While in the White House, President Bush and his wife Barbara established four “firsts” when it came to sending White House Christmas cards: the first card created by a White House staff artist, the first design that featured the Oval Office, the first to show the First Family’s living quarters, and the first depicting official activities on the White House lawn.
In 1989, Mrs. Bush felt that it “would be fun to have someone who had worked so long in the White House and who loved it so much to paint [their] card.” Director of graphics William Gemmell, who had previously drawn images for While House invitations and programs, was chosen for the task. Gemmell admits to being “scared to death” following the list of famed American artists who had worked on the Reagan series of Presidential Christmas cards. Using a combination of watercolor and acrylic, he composed two variations of the Truman Balcony as viewed from the South Lawn. Exterior Christmas decorations adorned the familiar view, and a Christmas tree stood visible through the windows of the Blue Room. The door leading to the Diplomatic Reception Room – the First Family’s personal entrance to the residence, was captured near the bottom of the scene. Mrs. Gemmell came up with the title for the paintings, Celebrating Christmas at the President’s House.
Mrs. Bush showed both renderings of the South Portico to Hallmark representatives. She informed them that she liked the painting with less snow better, while her husband preferred the snow-swept scene and asked them to make a decision. Eventually the snow-covered print was accepted, but Mrs. Bush was delighted nonetheless, stating that “Bill did a wonderful job. We loved it because that’s the way you think of the White House.” Hallmark printed 150,000 official White House Christmas cards and 7,500 gift prints for the Bushes. The interior greeting read, “The President and Mrs. Bush extend their warmest wishes that Christmas and the New Year will hold much happiness and peace for you and those you love.”
For 1990, President W.H. Bush decided to feature the Oval Office in the First Family’s official holiday cards. New York interior designer Mark Hampton had helped the Bushes refurbish several White House rooms, including the Oval Office. He found a rug the President had requested – blue with a gold seal, recovered some antique White House chairs which had been in storage, and added blue curtains and more traditional sofas. The President and Mrs. Bush decided to ask the self-described “Sunday painter” to compose a formal rendering of the Oval Office for their official White House Christmas cards. Hampton called it “a great honor” and sent the First Couple a preliminary sketch. According to the First Lady, “He sent the most marvelous painting for us to approve and there in the middle was Millie! George felt, and I did too, that when you send greetings to Kings and Queens, you don’t need the dog in the picture. So he painted another, and I have both of his sketches – for the official card and the unofficial card.” The design was entitled The Oval Office, The White House and Hallmark printed 153,000 Presidential Christmas cards and 7,000 gift folders. For that Christmas, President W. H. Bush presented the members of his Cabinet and executive staff with copies of David Boorstein’s book, The Americans: The Democratic Experience.
The following year, Mrs. Bush contacted her old friend, artist Kamil Kubik, who immigrated to New York from communist Czechoslovakia in 1948. She invited him to the White House to create the image of a family Christmas. In the first depiction of the family’s living quarters to be portrayed in an official White House Christmas card, Kubik set up in the second-floor Yellow Oval Room and painted for two days. He described the experience as “incredible… to be in that elegant room, surrounded by magnificent American paintings.” In his portrait, The Family Tree, Upstairs at the White House, the artist portrayed a scene of toys and other opened gifts scattered around the tree and surrounding area beneath the room’s grand and glowing chandelier. For 1992, Hallmark produced 160,000 White House Christmas cards and 5,000 gift prints. To his top staff, President Bush bequeathed a copy of the sequel to the previous year’s Boorstein offering, The Americans: The National Experience.
For Christmas 1991, Kubik was on hand to capture the ceremonial lighting of the official tree on the White House lawn. To help flip the switch were five American hostages recently freed from captivity in Lebanon. After an unintended 28-second technical delay, the 38-foot spruce illuminated in red, white, and blue, and the 12,000 in attendance burst into applause. Set against an indigo sky, Kubik captured the multi-tiered patriotic lighting, state trees adorned with brightly colored flags, and surrounding snow-covered foliage, and committed it to canvas. Said the artist, “I didn’t do it with any idea in mind. I just liked the scene and activity at Christmas.” The President and First Lady loved Kubik’s painting and asked if they could again use his art for their official 1992 White House Christmas cards. Kubik described it as “a great honor” stating, “During World War II, I escaped from the Communists and found refuge in the American army…the President, as Commander-in-Chief, is the Guardian Angel (of the civilized world). For me, to be able to do something for the President, I would drop everything at any time.” Hallmark produced a record 185,000 official Presidential Christmas cards, as well as 8,500 commemorative folders displaying Kubik’s painting. Close aides and staff members received a third Boorstein book, The Americans: The Colonial Experience, from President Bush.
George H.W. Bush’s one term as president was a time of great change in the world. It is viewed as a time of triumph in international affairs but temporary economic uncertainty at home. The fall of the Berlin Wall and collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, and later, the Soviet Union, swept away the geopolitical reality which had existed for nearly half a century. Liberal democracy and free-market capitalism had triumphed in the Cold War and America now stood alone as the world’s one remaining superpower. The U.S. military orchestrated a quick victory in ousting the regime of Manuel Noriega from Panama, and an overwhelming show of force in leading the international force which routed Saddam Hussein’s army from Kuwait.
At home, however, the economic downturn which began in 1990 accelerated into 1992 amid a rash of bank failures, rising unemployment and falling property values. Bush lost some support among stalwart Republicans when he broke his “read my lips, no new taxes” pledge in compromising with congressional Democrats on a capital-gains tax increase. The public mood turned negative and Bush was defeated in his bid for re-election by charismatic Arkansas governor Bill Clinton. He would leave the White House after four eventful years. Upon their departure, First Lady Barbara Bush remarked, “As someone blessed with the extraordinary privilege of living here, it was a bit surprising that this house so quickly became our home…the White House must be many things to many people: repository of so much of our history, seat of government, public museum and, of course, private residence. This wonderful place fills each of these roles magnificently.”