One of them campaigned for income supplements for veterans of the American Revolution. Another came into prominence for vetoing an inflated street-cleaning contract in Buffalo, New York. A third boasted of not being a Julius Caesar nor a Napoleon, but a “plain Hoosier colonel, with no more relish for a fight than for a good breakfast and hardly so much.”
Happy Presidents Day. And a brisk salute for three chief executives seldom held in high regard: James Buchanan, Grover Cleveland and Benjamin Harrison.
One of them conquered a weakness for the drink and the Confederate States of America. Another conquered ileitis, a bad temper and Nazi Germany. A third conquered a bad back, a stalwart senator and Richard Nixon.
Happy Presidents Day. And a hoot and a holler for Ulysses S. Grant, Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy.
One of them followed his service in the White House with a star turn as a House representative, one as chief justice of the United States and one as a whiskey distiller.
Happy Presidents Day. Lift up your glass for John Quincy Adams, William Howard Taft and George Washington.
Some 31 of them were generals, 19 were members of the House, 16 were senators, 15 were governors; one was an actor, one an ordained minister and one held a Ph.D.
In our current distress, and amid continuing contention over the last president, it might do us well to consider how remarkable have been the occupants of the White House – even the ones who rank lowest in historians’ polls.
In previous years, I have written derisively of Presidents Day, regretting that America’s schoolchildren no longer knew the meaning of Feb. 12 (Abraham Lincoln’s birthday) or Feb. 22 (Washington’s), but instead get a day off for an anodyne Presidents Day, which was created exactly 50 years ago and set for the third Monday in February.
The date was chosen as part of an effort to create three-day holidays, and it somewhat satisfied purists because it fell roughly between the birthdays of Lincoln and Washington. For many years, I was troubled that a broad Presidents Day honored Buchanan (arguably partially responsible for the onset of the Civil War) as well as Lincoln (often considered by historians as the highest-ranked president).
I knew then, and acknowledge now, that James Madison was right when he argued, in the Constitutional Convention on June 26, 1787, that, according to his notes, “Those chargd. [cq] with the public happiness, might betray their trust.” I knew then, and acknowledge now, that our leaders do not always meet the standard set by Madison when he argued, in Federalist Paper 57, “The aim of every political constitution is, or ought to be, first to obtain for rulers men who possess most wisdom to discern, and most virtue to pursue, the common good of the society.”
But by and large, the leaders who have ascended to the American presidency have been remarkable figures.
Time, of course, has worn away the partisan passions of the past, even the most incendiary; today we examine, for example, South Carolina’s rebellion against the tariff in its ordinance of nullification with dispassion, even though it was a deadly strike at the heart of the American nation. Similarly, the rough edges of Franklin Delano Roosevelt – revered by some, but considered so odious a figure by his opponents that they referred to him as “that man in the White House” rather than utter his name – have worn away. The homespun shortcomings that critics of Harry Truman deplored so passionately now are regarded among his most powerful virtues.
We seldom today pause to reflect on James A. Garfield, but he was a remarkable figure, a general in the Civil War, a member of the Ohio senate and the U.S. House, and was simultaneously elected to the Senate and the presidency. America has seldom produced a figure like Taft, who served as judge, governor-general of the Philippines, and secretary of war before becoming president and chief justice.
I grew up in the seaside town where Calvin Coolidge had his summer White House, and even there was told that “Silent Cal” was a cartoon figure of little consequence. But he was a member of the state house and senate in Massachusetts, mayor of Northampton, lieutenant governor and governor of the state and vice president, and came to prominence in 1919 when he said of the Boston police strike, “There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, anytime.”
Today we are aware that a dozen American presidents owned slaves, and there is no excusing slavery. It is hard to put a “but” after that, and I don’t propose to do so. Perhaps we condemn slavery for the crime against humanity it was and yet remember Washington for his participation in slavery – and also for his stewardship of the Revolutionary army and the selfless example he set as the first president; Thomas Jefferson for celebrating liberty if not exactly practicing it; Madison for his vision as a constitutional thinker; and Grant for defeating the Confederacy and for his remark, in his memoir, about Robert E. Lee and his Southern warriors: “I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse.”
Now we confront the problem of Donald J. Trump, impeached twice, forever linked with traducing the truth, with seeking to overturn an election and with the rampaging trespassers on Capitol Hill, providing perhaps the darkest day in the capital and surely the most dangerous hour at the Capitol since the British invasion of 1814. The divisions revealed in the Senate trial of the 45th president speak to the divisions he recognized and exploited. His supporters revere him, his detractors deplore him, and history likely will treat him harshly.
Some of those who never made the White House left a more felicitous legacy: DeWitt Clinton, Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, Samuel Tilden, Adlai Stevenson, Al Gore, John McCain, plus many others forgotten today. They all left metaphorical footprints in our February snows. Only a country rich in character could produce such figures – remembered, and appreciated, even in defeat. Happy Presidents Day, and Almost-Presidents Day.
David M. Shribman is the former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Follow him on Twitter at ShribmanPG.