I have a lifetime love affair with the Presidents of the United States.
I love these guys, every one of them. The best of them are among the most skilled and courageous leaders in world history; the least of them took more risks and sacrificed more for their country than any of us ever can or will, including me. Every one of our Presidents, whatever their blunders, flaws and bad choices, was a remarkable and an accomplished human being, and exemplified the people he led in important ways. Every one of them accepted not only the burden of leadership, but the almost unbearable burden of leading the most dynamic, ambitious, confusing, cantankerous and often unappreciative nation that has ever existed. I respect that and honor it.
I have been a President junkie since I was eight years old. It’s Robert Ripley’s fault. My father bought an old, dog-eared paperback in the “Believe it or Not!” series and gave it to me. It was published in 1948. One of Ripley’s entries was about the “Presidents Curse”: every U.S. President elected in a year ending with a zero since 1840 (William Henry Harrison) had died in office, and only one President who had dies in office, Zachary Taylor, hadn’t been elected in such a year. The cartoon featured a creep chart—I still have it—listing the names of the dead Presidents, the years they were elected, and the year 1960 with ???? next to it. When Jack Kennedy, the youngest President ever elected, won the office in 1960, my Dad, who by that time was sick of me reminding him of the uncanny pattern, said, “Well, son, so much for Ripley’s curse!”
You know what happened. (John Hinckley almost kept the curse going, but Ronald Reagan, elected in 1980, finally broke it.) That year I became obsessed with Presidential history, devising a lecture that gave an overview of the men and their significance in order. My teacher allowed me to inflict it on my classmates. Much later, Presidential leadership and character was the topic of my honors thesis in college. When I finally got a chance to go to Disneyland, the first place I went was the Hall of Presidents. When the recorded announcer said, “Ladies and Gentlemen, the Presidents of the United States!” and the red curtain parted to show the audio-animatrons of all of them together, it was one of the biggest thrills of my life.
Today I will honor our past Presidents with some of my favorite facts about each of them, trying hard not to get carried away. Is it ethics? It’s leadership, which has always been the dominant sub-topic here, but yes, it’s ethics. I know I’m hard on our Presidents, as I think we all should be: supportive, loyal, but demanding and critical. I am also, however, cognizant of how much they give to the country and their shared determination to do what they think, rightly or wrongly, is in the country’s best long-term interests. File this post under respect, fairness, gratitude, and especially citizenship. And now…