Kitchen Debate | Elliott Erwitt


I have previously written about the Kitchen Debate, an iconic moment in both television and photographic history. In documentary Contacts, Elliott Erwitt, the photographer of the most famous image of the Kitchen Debate remembers how events unfolded.

The time is 1959. The scene is the American Industrial Fair in Moscow. The characters are the vice president of United States who plans to run for president and the chief of the Soviet Union Nikita Khrushchev. The situation is massive crowds and bedlam as two politicians will from exhibit to exhibit, Nixon boasting about American accomplishments and Khrushchev fielding the gibes and then joining into the asinine argument.

By sheer luck, I guessed correctly where they would turn up next: which was at a display of a modern kitchen behind a barrier. I rushed to it to have an unobstructed view as they approached the rail. Luck was with me. With a direct view and no one to  push and shove, I circumnavigated Nixon and Khrushchev, finding my best range. From then on, it was like shooting fish in a barrel.

But how pictures can lie. The illusion is one of Nixon standing up to the Soviets, where the reality is an argument about cabbage soup versus red meat.

American Presidency, Part I.

Iconic Photos look back at the most iconic presidential photos from 1939 – 1974.

You don’t need Iconic Photos to tell you that there is an election campaign going on in the United States, especially if you live in America. Despite all limitations and checks & balances on his power, the President of the United States is often considered to be the Most Powerful Man on the planet, and the Presidency itself a bully pulpit.

Modern American presidency as we know it today began under Franklin Delano Roosevelt; many remember FDR as an avuncular figure from news reels and radio broadcasts, the man who won the Second World War. Meanwhile his crippling polio was largely kept out of the public eye until Time magazine controversially published a photo featuring his wheelchair.

His successor, Harry Truman, was best remembered photographically for a premature headline, calling the 1948 Presidential Election for his opponent. While he was the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces, Dwight D. Eisenhower had some memorable photos, but as president, he presided over a largely uneventful decade during which American military and economic might was nothing but rapidly ascendent. It was hardly surprising that he left the White House with high approval ratings (only tempered by Sputnik and U2 incident).

Jack Kennedy, too, enjoyed high approval rates; he also enjoyed Eisenhower’s counsel, after the Bay of Pigs fiasco; two presidents walking hunched-shoulder to hunched-shoulder was memorably captured in an award winning photo by Paul Vathis. The Loneliest Job — another image of Kennedy’s unique silhouette — makes, at least to this writer, the definitive portrait of an American presidency.

Lyndon Johnson entered the pantheon of iconic images on the very first day of his presidency as he was haphazardly sworn in on the Air Force One. When he finally left Washington five years later, he had already presided over a disastrous war. Jack E. Kightlinger’s photo of anguished Johnson listening to a tape from Vietnam makes a sombering picture.

While one of Nixon’s most memorable photos was made when he was Eisenhower’s Vice President. His ‘debate’ with the Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev solidified his foreign policy credentials. A decade later, he would leave the White House equally memorably.

(To be continued….)

Links for bigger photos: Big Three; FDR in a wheelchair; Truman; Kennedy & Eisenhower; JFK and son; the Loneliest Job; Johnson sworn in; anguished Johnson; the Kitchen Debate; Nixon departs


Also, I have been asked to pass on this message from a reader. Apparently, there is a social media platform called LiveCitizen/Fix*Us; it lets users weigh in on campaign issues, soliciting solution for pressing problems. A winner will be selected from each category and will receive a $1,000 donation to the charity of their choice. I think it’s an intellectually stimulating challenge. Check it out here. Disclaimer: I don’t get any commission from them.


Space Shuttle Program (1981 – 2011)

After three decades, Atlantis which was launched on Saturday will be NASA’s last space shuttle mission. For the next eleven days, it will be orbiting the Earth, and for the next eleven days, the Iconic Photos will feature the most breathtaking images from the shuttle’s career.

Nixon and NASA administrator James Fletcher redefined the space program after the Apollo missions

First, a disclaimer: I am not a fan of the space program; my friends go so far as to say I have “deep-seated mistrust in science and scientific community”. Many articles and pundits this week noted — and will note — the space shuttle program’s extraordinary achievements. While I do not deny this, it is worth reflecting on its failed promises.

When first conceived in the 1970s, the shuttle was to launch once a week. However, since its first mission thirty years ago, only 135 flights were launched, a dismal average of one every three months. So much for a vehicle envisioned as an everyday freight truck.

But it is not very good at freighting either; initially, it was estimated that each kilogram sent into orbit will cost $1,400. Costs spiraled to $1.5 billion a mission, at the cost of $60,000 per kilogram. Although its big selling-point was reusability, extensive maintenance needed after each mission meant that it was never truly reused again.

Its supporters point out that actually less than 1% of the federal budget went to NASA. It is true but in three decades, at the cost of $192 billion, the shuttle program has cost American taxpayers more than the Manhattan Project, the Apollo Programme and the Panama Canal combined. Its safety record — 1.5 per 100 flights — is also not topnotch.

True, its achievements — like delivering the Hubble Telescope and countless other satellites — should not be ignored, but the space shuttle was costly, both in terms of money and human life. Other nations and robots will perform the shuttle’s duties, and American astronauts will hitch rides with Russian rockets. Those are cheaper, safer alternatives, even if they are less magnificent.

William Safire (1930-2009)


An obscure first time governor when Richard Nixon chose him as his running mate, Spiro Agnew was one of America’s ‘Most Admired Men’ less than a year later. His role was that as the voice of the so-called “silent majority” and boy, he delivered one scathing one criticism after another on political opponents, especially journalists and anti-war activists. His unusual, often alliterative epithets (joint products of Angrew and two White House speechwriters William Safire and Pat Buchanan) included such gems as “pusillanimous pussyfooters”, “hopeless, hysterical hypochondriacs of history” and “an effete corps of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals.”

The last was directed towards the press corps. Another phrase, also directed towards the media, “nattering nabobs of negativism” was especially enduring. First used during Agnew’s address to the California Republican state convention in San Diego on September 11, 1970, the phrase was coined by William Safire, who died earlier this month at the age of 79 after a legendary career at the New York Times.

There Safire was the first regular conservative commentator for the liberal newspaper, and was beloved even by liberals for his witty “On Language” column where he playfully skewered language fumblers from across the political spectrum. Safire, a college dropout, was a longtime Republican operative; he set up the famous Nixon-Khrushchev ‘kitchen debate’ in Moscow, won the Pulitzer Prize for his columns, and never quailed from voicing strong opinions; one of his last controversial columns called Hillary Clinton a “congenital liar.”

In the end, William Safire may be remembered for “nattering nabobs of negativism”, and his “rules for writers”: Remember to never split an infinitive. Take the bull by the hand and avoid mixing metaphors. Proofread carefully to see if you words out. Avoid clichés like the plague. And don’t overuse exclamation marks!!

(Above, Agnew, Safire, Buchanan, and other members of the Nixon speechwriting team on a flight to a campaign stop in 1972).

Nixon meets Elvis


Of all the requests made each year to the National Archives for reproductions of photographs and documents, one item has been requested more than any other. It was neither the Bill of Rights or the Constitution of the United States, but the above photograph of Elvis Presley and Richard M. Nixon shaking hands on the occasion of Presley’s visit to the White House.

Although Richard Nixon abhorred modern art, and even forbade its presence in the White House,  his advisors told him that publicly supporting the arts would boost his image. As a result, Nixon oversaw a six-fold increase in funding for the National Endowment for the Arts and the Public Broadcasting System (PBS). [To Nixon’s horror, these funds went to Erica Jong’s novel of sexual liberation, Fear of Flying.] Nixon was also known for his star-filled parties at his “Western White House” in San Clemente, California, and for his association with glamorous personalities like the Reagans and Frank Sinatra. However, it was not Nixon who initiated this meeting. On the morning of December 21, 1970, Elvis Presley paid a visit to the White House, with a six-page letter of introduction written by himself.

In the letter, he requested a meeting with the President and asked that he be made a “Federal Agent-at-Large” in the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. Presley also brought some gifts–a Colt 45 pistol and family photos. He was received at 12:30 pm, and received a thank-you note from the president, but the fictitious position of ‘Federal Agent-at-Large’ was not created for Presley, who himself would succumb to the influence of drugs less than seven years later.

You can see all memoranda and less famous pictures from the meeting here. Photos by White House photographer Oliver F. Atkins.

VP Nixon in Tokyo


In October 1953, Vice President Richard Nixon embarked on a precedent-setting tour of Asia. Newly elected President Eisenhower was elevating the office of the Vice President from a nominal and ceremonial position to an important position in US foreign policy.

In Tokyo, Nixon would note controversially that the U.S made a mistake in stripping Japan of its military after the Second World War. Throughout his vice presidency, Nixon would go on to contend that Japan had become a target of Red aggression.