Presidents’ Day gives us an excuse, if we needed one, to look back into history, to try to understand why we voluntarily choose to give so much power to ordinary human beings. The two great leaders we honor today really were rather special: George Washington, the first president of the United States, and Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth president, who really made the mythical journey from log cabin to White House, rather than penthouse to White House, and was elected president at just about the worst moment in the history of the United States. These two men were far from perfect but with hindsight, we can certainly see them as men of heroic stature and historic importance. They cast a long shadow.
Modern presidents are more bureaucratic than heroic, and the shadow of history must be oppressive to them. It would be incongruous for a leader of today to model himself on Washington or Lincoln; the grand nation-building opportunities are just not there. But perhaps, inspired by the classical architecture of Washington, D.C., some presidents have been tempted to model themselves on the gods of ancient Greece and Rome, who interfered in human affairs for obscure and sometime malicious reasons, and with unpredictable results. At its most imperial, the role of the president corresponds to that of Jupiter or Zeus, the chief god of the ancient world, whose symbol was the eagle and who was very fond of using random thunderbolts, and otherwise throwing his weight around. Zeus supported or hindered in those activities by a Pantheon of lesser gods, very like Congress. The men who framed the Constitution were educated in the classics, which is why the capital seems so eerily like ancient Rome. The founders knew all about the Olympians, and they never quite abandoned the imperial idea, even as they created a democratic Constitution.
All presidents inherit the uneasy compromise embedded in that Constitution. They are expected to be amiable and Olympian, democratic and commanding, all at the same time.
What we tend to forget about the gods of the ancient world, Zeus included, is that they weren’t really very powerful or effective. They fought amongst themselves, got carried away by their emotions, and made lots of mistakes. Zeus, Athena and Apollo among them made an appalling mess of the Trojan War, for example. The ancient Greeks and Romans recognized this fallibility, and we need to be equally realistic about our own Pantheon of squabbling deities. Like the ancient gods, they are all too human. They can lead to the top of the mountain or over the cliff.
Alexis de Tocqueville, a French aristocrat who came to America in 1835, liked the idea of democracy but feared that voters would never choose a candidate with truly presidential qualities because such a leader would be too threatening to our notions of equality. H.L. Mencken took up the same theme in the 1920s. If we keep voting for presidents who seem just like us, he warned, we will end up with a president who is just like us, a regular plain speaking guy with all the regular guy’s failings and weaknesses – and then, Mencken predicted, we will be sorry.
Copyright: David Bouchier