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Americana

By Dennis Drabelle
Sunday, January 18, 2009

Everything's coming up Obama these days, everywhere you turn;even your Metrocard.

is now presidentially collectible. It's too bad that through lack of foresight the inauguration happens so early in the year: A few months from now, the cherry trees along the Tidal Basin will surely be putting out Obamablossoms. For those whose appetite for Barackabilia has yet to be sated, Barack Obama: 44th President, by Avery Krut (Whitman, $49.95), may be just the ticket. Not so much a book as a cupboard between hard covers, it is full of tickets, bumper stickers, reprints of speeches, penciled letters from admiring kids and all sorts of other electioneering byproducts, each tucked into its own envelope-like slot. My favorite page, however, is one without a prize to be extracted: a photo of a mock swearing-in of Obama as a U.S. senator on January 5, 2005. (The actual ceremony took place the day before.) Administering the mock-oath is Vice President Dick Cheney, whose affable grin suggests he has no idea what he has set in motion.

Once the man of the hour is ensconced in the White House, his wife, Michelle, might want to prepare herself for the letters she will get (along with e-mails, textings, twitters and other cybercorrespondence) by perusing Dear First Lady: Letters to the White House from the Collections of the Library of Congress & National Archives, by Dwight Young and Margaret Johnson (National Geographic, $25). There are tragic notes: Lyndon Johnson writing to former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy shortly after her husband's assassination to express his admiration for the way she was bearing up, and assuring her, "I only wish things could be different -- that I didn't have to be here." And there are amusing ones, such as the president of the Auto Dismantlers Association of Southern California writing Mrs. Johnson to inform her that he is stung by her "criticism of the appearance of many of the nation's auto dismantling yards"; he angles for an invite to the upcoming White House Conference on Natural Beauty as a way of making amends. Missing from the book, however, are any letters written to one of the most colorful first ladies of all: Lucy Webb Hayes, known as Lemonade Lucy for her insistence on teetotaling by everyone inside the White House. My high school American history teacher liked to relate how rebellious guests used to get the better of Her Lemonadeness: slipping outside to booze with a vengeance, ending up "stacked like cordwood on the White House lawn."

Out beyond the White House lawn and the Tidal Basin live The Americans, as seen in a photography book of the same name by Robert Frank (Steidl, $39.95). Reissued to mark the 50th anniversary of its first publication, The Americans collects pictures taken by the Swiss-born photographer in 1955 and '56, when he was bankrolled by a Guggenheim grant. Some of the scenes have a time-capsule quality: a man getting a shoeshine in an anything-but-fancy bathroom; a lunch counter full-up with patrons sitting beneath "Orange Whip 10 cents" signs; convertibles pointed at a drive-in movie screen. It was an era when men wore hats, women wore furs, and jukeboxes were the size of phone booths. Jack Kerouac sums up the work's effect in his rampaging introduction: "Robert Frank . . . unobtrusive, nice, with that little camera that he raises and snaps with one hand he sucked a sad poem right out of America onto film, taking rank among the tragic poets of the world." An exhibition of Frank's photos has just opened at the National Gallery.

Nothing comes tumbling out of 100 American Flags: A Unique Collection of Old Glory Memorabilia, collection and design by Kit Hinrichs, text by Delphine Hirasuna, photography by Terry Heffernan (Ten Speed, $19.95). But its still photos show that today's Obamapreneurs are only upholding an honored tradition of patriotic kitsch. How can you not savor the flag-embossed poker chips and the deck of Victory playing cards with Uncle Sam as the king, Miss Liberty as the queen and Adolf Hitler as the joker? Not to mention the antiwar flag from the Vietnam War era on which silhouetted bombers take the place of the stars and rifles stand in for the bars. Lemonade Lucy would have been appalled at the use to which a flag was put after the U.S. triumph at the Battle of Manila in 1898: adorning a celebratory whiskey flask.

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