It’s one of the few holidays we get in the US, and seeing as how the nation’s executive office is as much a part of our cultural identity as it is part of our politics, it’d be remiss if we didn’t cover the topic. Below are some of the most interesting topics about the men who’ve lived in the oval office and how they’re affecting culture even to this day.
The Image: Heroic freedom-fighter who bled liberty and could speak to bald eagles.
The Reality: Slave-owner, who was apparently abusive enough that many of his slaves tried to escape to freedom. Also a pretty bad general, in the greater scope of things, having lost the majority of battles in his military career.
The Implications: The idea that our founding fathers were somehow demigods of democracy and equality is shoved down our throats at most every opportunity, and as a result we’ve got a culture that constantly asks “What would the founders have wanted?” whenever any big social debate breaks out. Rather than deal with the problem as-is, both sides of the aisle try to appeal to the interpretations of men who owned slaves. For all the good they did do, I’m not sure I’m going to care too much for their opinion on property rights (or immigration, seeing as how they were huge racists).
The Image: Cited by many as the greatest of all American presidents, Lincoln’s legacy is nevertheless haunted by an increasingly popular idea that Honest Abe didn’t care a bit about the plight of the slaves and that his actions were purely in the interests of maintaining the union.
The Reality: In spite of this idea, the truth of the matter is that Lincoln was deeply opposed to slavery. Although he did drag his feet in declaring universal emancipation, he was, from his time as a congressman, an opponent of both the institution and the practices that surrounded it. Heck, just listen to the man himself:
“You may remember, as I well do, that from Louisville to the mouth of the Ohio, there were, on board, ten or a dozen slaves, shackled together with irons. That sight was a continued torment to me; and I see something like it every time I touch the Ohio, or any other slave-border. It is hardly fair for you to assume, that I have no interest in a thing which has, and continually exercises, the power of making me miserable.”
The Implications: Lincoln stands out here as unique among presidents. Typically we’re faced with the task of stopping ourselves from glossing over the uglier parts of our history, but here the problem reverses itself. Our perception of American history is twisted enough as it is, could we not make a villain out of one of the few better presidents we’ve had? There’s plenty of real bad guys worth turning your ire towards.
The Forgotten Presidents (Johnson through McKinley)
The Image: None. Similar to the “Lesser Prophets” of the Bible, the inhabitants of the White House from 1865 to 1901 are seemingly doomed to obscurity except by those who study them- and even they know they could be doing more interesting stuff.
The Reality: The reason that these guys get left out from history isn’t because nothing interesting happened in the nearly half-century that they governed, but rather because they didn’t play a huge role in it. Following the assassination of Lincoln, the Federal government was severely weakened by rampant corruption that left local millionaires and city “bosses” as the chief actors in shaping the American landscape.
The Implications: In and of itself, I think it’s odd bordering on creepy that we’re collectively choosing to ignore nearly 50 years of history. How deeply the executive office was weakened in this time, the corruption and abuse that were rampant in the nation, the continued slaughter of Native Americans- this all just gets swept quietly under the rug. Even the sins that the government did not commit directly it either permitted to happen or was too ineffectual to prevent. This era, as embarrassing as it is to everyone, still needs recognition, people.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt
The Image: With the exception of a few folks from the extreme-Capitalist disciples of Von Mises, FDR is perhaps the only president to rival Lincoln in popularity. Viewed as both the intrepid leader of the US during the Second World War and the creator of the “New Deal” that most argue ended the Great Depression, FDR is cited as one of the architects of not only America, but the modern world.
The Reality: While FDR certainly did have a major impact on the modern world, often glossed over are his less honorable actions. While in office FDR had numerous affairs, though of course, those pale in comparison with his signing of Executive Order 9066, forcing over 100,000 Japanese-Americans out of their homes and into prison camps (“internment” just doesn’t quite cut it as a description).
The Implications: Again, in spite of his largely illustrious career, one of the single greatest acts of shameful and cowardly bigotry in US history is left out of the picture. With the exception of the Armenian genocide, I’d be hard pressed to think of another such concentrated effort to ignore the shameful treatment of an entire people group. They say that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it, and when history isn’t even remembered…
John F. Kennedy
The Image: Kennedy is treated in American history as being some sort of misunderstood messiah, brutally murdered before he got his chance to share with us his message of peace, prosperity, and harmony for all mankind. Even his critics will admit that the man oozed charisma and was the first president to both understand and make use of the television medium.
The Reality: …That said, I’ve never understood America’s love of Kennedy.
The man cheated on his wife constantly, hurled 1,500 Cubans into the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion as cannon fodder, increased US involvement in Vietnam, and had to be dragged into the battle for Civil Rights kicking and screaming all the way. When the construction of the Kinzua Dam flooded what little land the Seneca Nation had, Kennedy refused to intervene on their behalf.
The Implications: In spite of all that, Kennedy is given a kind of celebrity status, which I’d be able to tolerate more if I didn’t feel that it’s just so unearned. Personal reservations aside, the principal implication here seems to be that if you’re handsome enough, charming enough, and know how to present well on TV, you can spin even the most mediocre accomplishments in your favor. While almost certainly not Kennedy’s intent, one of the great lessons of his presidency seems to be that style, when done right, can trump substance in the world of politics.
This isn’t the first time I’ve brought up the issue of heritage, and it’s certainly not going to be the last. The question remains, as ever, “How do we account for the good, the bad, and the ugly when we’re trying to celebrate our past?” It’s something I doubt we’re all that closer to solving- I know it still throws me through a loop.
All I know right now is this: We’re never going to create any legacy worth laying claim to so long as it’s one built on half-truths and lies of omission. I don’t know how to account for flawed humans and I don’t know that I ever will. But trying to gloss over the sins of great men or the great acts of sinners is never going to get us the heritage we deserve. And with that, I’ll be enjoying the last of my three-day weekend.
Happy Presidents’ Day.