Monday, February 19, 2007

Presidents Day

If anyone needed proof that the United States was set up as a commercial-based nation, as opposed to ethnic-based (Japan) or religion-based (Pakistan) or even ideology-based (North Korea), all you have to do is look around a little on this half-holiday. Wherever you see the words "Presidents Day", the word which follows is "Sale!". The nation's merchants have things going just on the chance that some poor sucker has the day off and a few extra bucks he can spend. Otherwise, we'd have to actually think about something - past presidents. And THAT, thinking, is not something we like doing, especially when its about (eeuuwww) history.
I'm not ashamed to say I like history. It's sad that most people couldn't name the past five presidents if you put a gun to their heads. I think you can tell quite a bit about our presidents as people if you know just a few events in their lives. Truman never went to college, but learned enough about music to follow the scores on paper while listening at concerts of the National Symphony Orchestra. Lincoln helped prepare legislation in Illinois by offering to help illiterate colleagues. Taft's pictures make him look like a slob, but he had been a baseball player and horseback rider (!). Still, they did have to rebuild the White House bathtub for him. When Harding died, they had to send a messenger to where V.P. Calvin Coolidge was staying in Maine because there was no electricity or phone service. Silent Cal then took the oath of office from his father, a local Justice of the Peace. Nixon financed his law school tuition with card game winnings from his days in the Navy. Doesn't everyone find this stuff fascinating?
Still, you have to start with Washington. You could make a pretty good case that there would have been no USA without him. He wasn't perfect, but he seemed to learn from his mistakes so quickly that, unlike almost all people who become less competent as their status rises, Washington actually got better, and, by the time he became president, was acutely aware of the nature of his job. He knew that nearly everything he did would set some kind of precedent, and so he was careful not to overuse his powers, spelled out in the new Constitution but untested in practice. Retiring after two terms in office was a master stroke that proved he had no plan to turn the country into his private fiefdom in a world where kings were still the norm.
And we can't forget Lincoln. He succeeded by taking a very different line from Washington. He expanded his own constitutional powers in pursuit of a single goal, preserving the union, even when his smarty-pants Cabinet officers were ready to let the Rebels go and form their own country. Who would have guessed that a guy who first became well-known for his ability to handle an ax would also turn out to be the best writer we ever had as president. Would his second term have been successful? It's hard to say, but just about anyone would have been better in the job than his successor, Andrew Johnson.
I could go on and on. Some presidents like Grant and Lyndon Johnson were better at their former jobs, general and senator, respectively. Only a few, notably Taft and Hoover, took on big tasks following their terms as president, though Carter gets a nod for going to some pretty awful places to offer genuine Christian service. Harding and Buchanan were clearly in over their heads, while others like FDR and Reagan (yes, I know I'm saying something nice about the Gipper) always seemed to strike the right note to let us know things were in good hands. Kennedy was dashing and handled the Cuban Missile Crisis better than others might have. All the bearded guys between Grant and Teddy Roosevelt just stuck to domestic issues, letting the business tycoons mostly have their way with the country while ignoring the issue of race.
Our incumbent is about as unpopular as it's possible for a president to be, and I can't say he's my favorite. But history can be surprising. These things get rehashed constantly, and past presidents can rise or fall in the historical pecking order. Eisenhower looks better now than he used to, and Teddy Roosevelt doesn't look as Mt. Rushmore-worthy. Ford looked bad when he pardoned Nixon, but now it appears (at least to many) that he did the right thing. So there's hope yet for Bush 43, but you probably won't hear it from me first.


Post a Comment

<< Home