The Trickle-Down Presidency : As History’s List Grows, Heroes Will Be Fewer

<i> Henry F. Graff is a professor of history at Columbia University, specializing in the presidency. </i>

Americans, alone among the peoples of the world, believe that history comes in two sizes: the four-year slice and the eight-year slice. Upon President Bush’s oath-taking, we begin inscribing a new four-year segment, which might just stretch into an eight-year one. If Bush’s swatch of history shines like Theodore Roosevelt’s or Franklin D. Roosevelt’s or Abraham Lincoln’s, he will give his name to a “time,” “an era,” “an age.” But if the nation rates his work as only ordinary, he will occupy a slot in the history books called simply “the 41st President.”

The 41st President! To understand what such a number means, observe that in the two centuries since George Washington’s inauguration as the first President, there have been only 15 Popes and nine English monarchs. An American born in the first year of the 20th Century will, on Jan. 20, have lived under 17 Presidents. In that same time frame, the Japanese will have known only four emperors.

These facts provide no argument for giving Presidents life tenure. Still, is it any wonder that to so many Americans, who grow up habituated to seeing their history as essentially the history of the presidency, the political past seems more and more to be a blur? They are suffering from an overloaded historical memory, like an electrical socket with too many plugs in it. Shortly, professional historians will be the only people who can reliably remember the whole presidential past.

The line of the Presidents, in a word, is not what it used to be: a hall of fame of manageable size. When Thomas Jefferson, the third President, hung portraits of his two predecessors on the wall of his bedroom on his Inauguration Day, he was doing a noble and symbolic thing. No President, however inspired, can honor his predecessors in like manner today. The best he can do is venerate a few favorites out of the accumulation in the White House attic. Thomas P. (Tip) O’Neill Jr., the former Speaker of the House, delights in telling about a conversation in which President Reagan confused Grover Cleveland (the 22nd and 24th President) with Grover Cleveland Alexander, the baseball pitcher whom he had played in a movie! Even if the incoming President is more at home with the history of his office than Reagan is, he is aware that he will head an institution laden with names that most people can no longer recall.


As the presidency ages, then, the public must reshape its conception of it. Even as the media fill the air with details about the new First Family, including especially the foibles of the new President, Americans must begin to internalize the awareness that the office vastly transcends its constantly changing cast of characters. They must see that the world does not begin anew on each Inauguration Day, that the most intractable of the nation’s problems are never solved, just dealt with and handed on, and that the public, when it must, will make some of its Presidents into heroes and allow the rest to meld into obscurity. Lincoln was elected as Honest Abe, but the anguish of the Civil War transformed him into Father Abraham, a veritable Old Testament prophet. F.D.R., struggling against physical immobility, quickly embodied a nation struggling against economic paralysis and was transformed into a god accordingly. It is Jimmy Carter’s fate, on the other hand, to be merely “the 39th President,” even as Martin Van Buren remains just “the 7th President.”

Both President and public must recognize that as the line of Presidents heads toward 50, there will be long arid periods when greatness in the Oval Office will be scarce and when a critical hour for the country may not find a savior in charge, and when decency, not glamour, may be welcomed as the only way to fill the bill. The magnitude and complexity of modern problems, finally, dwarfs most occupants of the office, and its power--even in the wisest hands--cannot always shape events wisely. The proportion of “mediocres” who become the “forgottens” of White House history is, therefore, likely to rise noticeably.

John Adams, the first vice president, wrote in 1789, when George Washington had been chief executive for less than three months: “The duration of our President is neither perpetual nor for life; it is only for four years; but his power during those four years is much greater than that of an avoyer, a consul, a podesta, a doge, a stadtholder; any than a King of Poland; nay, than a King of Sparta.”

Those once-august rulerships in the Old World, regarded in their time as perdurable, exist no more. The presidency, on the other hand, is mightier on the eve of its 200th birthday than Adams could have dreamed. Yet his list of sovereign offices now defunct ought to be a caution to Americans. The presidency will increasingly demand a forgiving nation able to tolerate, in tandem with some occasional giants, the unglamorous holders of the office that its lengthening history must inevitably produce in numbers.