On this President’s Day I was thinking about what makes someone a good President of the United States? Is it the age he (or hopefully someday she) was born into? Would Abraham Lincoln have been a less effective chief executive had he governed at the turn of century rather than during the Civil War? Or is it something inherently presidential in the person? Is it just predestined for this one to be a sequoia while another one is kindling wood?
Sometimes I think it is perception. Someone like Harry Truman could say “The Buck Stops Here” and make it sound absolutely presidential; someone like George H. Bush could say “Read my lips” and slip into infamy faster than Charlie Sheen on a bender. I guess it could be the times and world events that shape a presidency, or it may just be that one guy is just better than the other.
I look at presidents and think of accomplishments; I also think family influences us a great deal in thinking about them as well. For example, my uncle always kept a beautiful picture of a young John F. Kennedy on his office wall. I was greatly moved every time I saw that picture, and my uncle’s feelings about the man were also told in stories. While I don’t remember JFK as being president, I know of his legacy from history but also have strong positive feelings about him from family.
I have also heard very negative things from family members about presidents. So growing up and hearing negative things about Herbert Hoover and positive stories about Franklin Delano Roosevelt would probably slant my feelings in a certain way. Also, as a student of history, I was certainly taught very positive things about FDR while the thing that stands clear in my mind about Hoover is the Hoovervilles: the many homeless shantytowns that sprung up all over the nation due to the Great Depression under his watch.
I am very conscious now of how I speak about presidents to my children. Since I remember Watergate vividly, it is hard for me to say anything positive about Richard Nixon, yet I still manage to say something like “he opened the door to China” and even of Jimmy Carter “he brought Israel and Egypt together in the peace process.” While I may personally think of both men as kindling more than presidential timber, I am not going to let those thoughts warp my kids’ perceptions of these men: they’ll get enough of that in school someday.
I have always thought of the great presidents as being larger than life, and those faces on Mount Rushmore provide clear evidence that many other people agree in reference to those four faces etched in stone in South Dakota. Is that monument in and of itself a greater influence than history? Well, many of us grow up with these thoughts: George Washington – Father of Our Country! Thomas Jefferson – Author of the Declaration of Independence! Theodore Roosevelt- Speak softly and carry a big stick! Abraham Lincoln – The Great Emancipator!
Surely, these four men stand out as exemplary presidential timber, yet they were not perfect. Of the four, I have always held Lincoln in the highest regard. Perhaps it was because he kept a divided nation from falling apart, or maybe it was that “Gettysburg Address” I memorized in fifth grade. Without question he has always been the one I have held other presidents up against, and many of them fail to make the cut.
I think JFK may have made his presidency legendary in his Inaugural Address. He uttered one of the greatest lines ever spoken by a president: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country!” Man, that still gives me the shivers as I think about the power of those words. They remain a shining example of what it means to lead and to do so with distinction. The fact that he was cut down by an assassin just as Lincoln was doesn’t hurt our perceptions either, making us feel they were both martyrs for their country.
Our last two presidents – George W. Bush and Barack Obama – have had war become the thing that frames their presidencies. Bush had a relatively quiet first year until 9/11 shook everyone’s world, and nothing (including the presidency) would ever be the same. Bush’s reaction to that event shaped his presidency, forcing him to almost have to recant his campaign slogan “I’m a uniter not a divider” and become the hunter of evildoers. How history will see this man is debatable, but many felt he focused too much on foreign concerns and forgot about the people at home – most notably during the Hurricane Katrina debacle.
Obama had to walk into a wartime presidency. One could say that he knew what he was getting into, but I don’t think anyone knows what it will be like until he has to sit in the Oval Office everyday. Obama has been tough – the strong sequoia against the battering winds – but we have to hope he can stay strong amidst the onslaught of all the negativity that is out there. As we witness the fall of governments in the Middle East (some of which have been staunch allies for the US in the region), you have to wonder what beasts will eventually slouch toward Bethlehem, and how ready Mr. Obama will be for a new world order that could include wars on a large scale across that region. It seems it is going to get a lot harder for Mr. Obama before it gets better.
So what makes outstanding presidential timber? I think it is something innate, some kind of genetic ability to stand tall and strong. Lincoln had it, and in my opinion so did Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Teddy Roosevelt, FDR, Truman, JFK, and Ronald Reagan. Whether I liked or disliked what they did in office, I am able to see them as standing above the rest, the tall sequoia trees above a birch forest.
Barack Obama may one day join that group because I think he has that same innate strength, but he will have to be able to withstand the many axes (both foreign and domestic) that are ready to be plunged against his trunk in the years ahead. Only then will we know if he stays standing or becomes kindling wood for history.
Photo Credit: travelkat.com