So it turns out I couldn’t resist writing a President’s Day post after all.
With the presidential campaign in high gear and high dudgeon, it occurred to me that today is as good a good day as any to step back and look at the job itself, and what we Americans expect from it.
The American President is, in many ways, a paradox.
He (or she) is the single most important and powerful person in a country that is theoretically ruled by “the people.”
When we like who is in office, we want to hand over as much power and authority as we can find to ensure they can get done the things with which we agree without getting bogged down by that pesky and useless Congress.
We trust them to use that power wisely.
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When we don’t like who is in office, we are shocked, “shocked!,” at the degree to which that skunk is grabbing power and circumventing Congress, which most closely represents the will of the people.
We do not trust them to use that power in a way with which we agree.
In order to become president, one must have, to put it mildly, a pretty strong ego; but to show it on the campaign trail would be a deadly error, because who wants a president who thinks he’s better than you?
In order to become president, one must satisfy and cater to as many different points of view and interests groups as possible in order to cobble together a majority.
But we say we want a president who is resolute and unwavering in his beliefs.
Thus we ridicule candidates who “voted for it before I voted against it,” or candidates who campaign to undo a health care system that was created based on the candidate himself championed and instituted with great fanfare a few years ago when he was a governor.
But don’t we want a president who knows how to compromise and negotiate?
We want a president who respects the law, but also one who ignores laws that prevent him (or her) from doing what we want.
In other words, respect the law, but not the stupid ones.
Few of the early presidents we revere today could ever be elected in a modern campaign.
Needless to say, it is no easy job.
Some are great, some rise to greatness under impossible circumstances, and others couldn’t manage greatness if it was their middle name.
And the office changes many of them, if not their beliefs than often their perspectives.
Many of our earlier presidents (Jefferson, Madison, Adams) did not think the post terribly important in comparison to the legislative branch, a kind of a clerk assigned to implement the wisdom of the body politic.
But that all changed, of course, once they took the oath.
(I once saw in interview with Gerald Ford in which he said then when he was in the House, he could not believe the stupidity of the various occupants of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. But once installed as president, Ford said with a smile that it was the idiocy of Capitol Hill which astounded him.)
Jefferson was appalled at the level of power Hamilton and his fellow Federalists were trying to attach to the presidency, but once there himself, he hesitated only slightly before agreeing to the Louisiana Purchase, something he considered to be outside his Constitutional authority.
Adams, my favorite and most curmudgeonly of the early presidents, was desperate to be recognized by the nation by being selected as president, but was not terribly well equipped for the job.
His temperament was not well suited for managing disparate views, a skill Washington had developed over his years in the military. And Adams had made the mistake of keeping most of Washington's cabinet, which meant they had no loyalty to him.
(But despite signing the dreadful Sedition Act, he did prevent war with France and he did prevent Hamilton from amassing a giant army that he intended to march through to South America, claiming all kinds of territory for the U.S. It seems Hamilton had as many dreams of empire as the man who killed him.)
As a writer and lover of good writing, it took me some time to warm up to George Washington. He was the least educated of the founders and probably the least prolific in his letters, which were always stiffly formal, much like the man.
But Washington understood some things particularly well, image and symbolism among them, which remain among the most important aspects of the job today.
As a person who was self-conscious about his lack of education, Washington was acutely aware of the importance of (and jealously guarded) the image he projected.
(Franklin once quipped that any body of men would inevitably elect the tallest man in the room as their leader.)
My favorite anecdote about the father of our country was that when he went on his tour to visit every state (a brilliant public relations maneuver if ever there was one) he made sure to stop the carriage outside of towns, so he could ride into town, in full uniform, on his white charger.
He knew that as first president, every thing he did would set a precedent. So, as he had been careful to do all his life, he was very conscious about how he conducted himself in every way, giving forethought to how it would affect future presidents in a way that is rare today.
Washington played to his strengths, which did not include being a great military strategist, but did include being a great leader.
He walked the balance between being graceful and aloof, and being a man of the people; between exerting authority and forcefulness when necessary and being conciliatory and flexible when it was in the nation’s best interests.
Because he was so well-loved, he was given the benefit of the doubt by the nation in a way that future presidents would no doubt envy. But even Washington was being pilloried by the end of his second term.
There is another aspect of the presidency which bears examination; the power and importance with which we invest it and thus divest ourselves of.
Not long ago I read an interesting book titled “Founding Myths: Stories That Hide Our Patriotic Past” by Ray Raphael.
Among other things, Raphael explores the paradox of the presidency, calling the recent interest in the founders, the presidents in particular, “presidential chic.”
While they were certainly extraordinary men, he makes the important point that there were thousands of other extraordinary men and women who, because they were not rich, educated, wealthy or published, have been forgotten by history despite doing remarkable things together.
He observes history needs heroes but that sometimes the right ones are not always chosen.
Ex: Paul Revere did not succeed in his mission but others did, why do we remember him and not them?
Farmers throughout Massachusetts effectively ended British rule and instituted self-government a year before Lexington and Concord. Why do we not learn this in school?
His point, which I think bears repeating, is that presidents are indeed extraordinary men (and one day women), even if only just because they have achieved the office.
But the United States was founded by thousands of people who did great things, who understood the issues at hand and who took risks that were, at times, greater than those whose names now ring through our history.
Remember the presidents yes.
But remember who put them there as well.