President Obama's celebration of his 50th birthday is pretty tame by presidential standards, lacking starlets sewn into sheer rhinestone-studded dresses, fireworks, or the 300-pound cakes trotted out at parties thrown for some of his predecessors in the White House.
For Obama, his birthday on Thursday gave him an excuse to visit ever so briefly his hometown of Chicago, something he rarely gets to do. And, of course, an excuse to raise more money for Democrats, something he does quite frequently with the 2012 campaign fast approaching.
The Wednesday night event at Chicago's Aragon Ballroom was planned as a lavish event, featuring singer Jennifer Hudson and musician Herbie Hancock. The donors there to sing "Happy Birthday" paid $35,800 a head for the special dinner that goes along with the show. The money—split between Obama's reelection campaign and the Democratic National Committee—will be welcome after the debt-ceiling fight forced him to cancel other fundraisers planned for July.
Obama, the fifth youngest president, is the seventh president to turn 50 in office; the last before him was Bill Clinton in 1996. The other five—Polk, Pierce, Grant, Cleveland, and Theodore Roosevelt—were born between 1795 and 1858 and chose to celebrate the big day pretty quietly. But quiet was not Clinton's style.
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Clinton's was staged at Radio City Music Hall in New York City. Aretha Franklin, Tony Bennett, Jon Bon Jovi, Aretha Franklin, and Jennifer Holliday joined him, all helping raise a staggering $10 million for the Democratic Party. The event—and the 300-pound American-flag cake—was beamed by television to hundreds of smaller dinners around the country.
Clinton was not the first to use his birthday for political ends. Dwight Eisenhower at times combined his with Republican rallies. On his 63rd birthday on Oct. 14, 1953, he surrounded himself with high school bands and cheering Republicans in Pennsylvania.
John F. Kennedy never made it to 50, but he had perhaps the most famous presidential birthday party in history, one that had all the Hollywood glitz of later parties Clinton and Obama enjoyed. But Kennedy had something that truly went down in history: the sex symbol of the day belting out the breathiest and without question the sexiest rendition of "Happy Birthday, Mr. President" ever heard.
The singer was Marilyn Monroe and the party in Madison Square Garden was to honor Kennedy's 45th birthday in May 1962. In one of her last public appearances before her death, Monroe was wearing a dress so tight she had to be sewn into it and wore nothing underneath it. Made of a sheer, flesh-colored fabric it had more than 2,000 rhinestones sewn on it.
When she finished her song, Kennedy told the crowd, "I can now retire from politics after having had 'Happy Birthday' sung to me in such a sweet, wholesome way."
Kennedy's successor could not hope to match that show. But Lyndon Johnson made sure the entire country helped him celebrate his 56th birthday. He set the date for the 1964 Democratic National Convention so that he would accept the presidential nomination on his birthday, with the whole convention singing 'Happy Birthday.' Fireworks were shot off afterward to mark the occasion.
Neither Johnson nor Kennedy were particularly introspective on their birthdays. But others have been. Even at the Republican rally in Pennsylvania, Eisenhower reflected on getting older.
"Please don't think there is any regret in my heart that I have reached the age of 63," the World War II commander told the crowd. "Considering when I was born, had I not reached it, I know where I would be."
Such looking back is almost a staple of presidential birthdays, though one that Obama has steadfastly ignored so far. The president has joked about the graying of his hair and the passing of years. But turning 50 has not made him particularly reflective in public, even though he has now attained an age his father never reached.
His father died in a car accident at age 46. His mother died at age 52.
That was not the case for Clinton. For him, turning 50 was an occasion to ponder how his life would have been different had his father not died at age 28. "If he had lived," he told a reporter, "I probably would have been a different sort of person." His birthday, he said, had "unleashed a flood of memories."
He also noted a new sense of his own mortality. "Even if I live to be 100," Clinton said, "I have more yesterdays than tomorrows."
Ronald Reagan similarly commented on his mortality but almost always injected humor into his birthday celebrations. Every year, he borrowed a line from comedian Jack Benny. Turning 75, for example, was to Reagan just "the 36th anniversary of my 39th birthday." He then added seriously, "Actually, the anniversaries of my birth aren't important. What is important is that I have tried to lead a meaningful life and I think I have."
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Far gloomier was James K. Polk, the first president to turn 50 in office. "Upon each recurrence of my birthday, I am solemnly impressed with the vanity and emptiness of worldly honors and worldly enjoyments," he wrote in his diary on one of his birthdays. He noted that he had lived most likely the bulk of his life already. "I have filled the highest station on earth. But I will soon go the way of all earth. I pray God to prepare me to meet the great event."
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