I’m becoming a presidential biography junkie. It will not always be so, but I’m passing through a phase. Humor me: Lincoln, Kennedy, Eisenhower, Carter, Roosevelt, Jefferson … I’m ticking them off. Yes, it can be addicting. And I can tell you why it is, at least for me.
With every administration, and the life that led to and from it, I am allowing conversations to take place between the presidents. Each had particular challenges. But all shared some fundamental similarities. Most of those had to do with the difficulty of governing with great opposition. They often led after being elected by very slim margins. National crisis paradoxically brought about greater unity and increased powers. Times of relative ease brought out the spoiled worst of the electorate. What we characterize as liberal or conservative today had a very different meaning in the past. In many cases the parties have traded places in terms of political positions. And each man (yes, to date all men!), without exception, was a product of his own time.
A few cases in point:
Kennedy, the reformer of civil rights, was a hardliner when it came to the Soviets, having witnessed his own father being disastrously soft with Hitler. Ike, supreme commander of Allied forces in the second world war, having witnessed the horrors of war, was diligent about staying clear of committing prematurely to armed conflict and bloating the military. FDR, born with a silver spoon in his mouth, became a traitor to his own privileged class, became assertive when it came to the role of government in solving social crisis during the great depression. Jefferson, intellectual and consummate diplomat, discovered quickly that the anti-monarchy sentiments reflected in the Declaration of Independence inhibited the kind of muscular leadership needed to guide a new nation.
All of these remarkable persons, each flawed in his own way, responded to the challenges at hand, often steering clear of the mistakes that preceded them and over-correcting as they erred to the other side.
From the confidence of a Roosevelt to the insecure brilliance of a Jefferson, each person brought themselves to the moment. Some went out with a bang and others with a whimper. But they all played their imperfect and necessary part.
These larger than life persons, made so through a combination of public persona and rare circumstance, are reminders of the roles we all play in the time and space we occupy. It is a drama of life and death, success and failure, strength and weakness, harmony and conflict. If I have learned anything it is that one cannot possibly understand the challenges and burdens of another without moving closely into their orbit, sliding into their moccasins and and listening to their story. I usually find some hints of tragedy and redemption there. And when I listen very carefully I hear the voice of the eternal as we pass like shades through history.
I close with the poem that Patty Jefferson, young wife of Thomas, wrote as she lay dying in Monticello:
Time wastes too fast: every letter
I trace tells me with what rapidity
life follows my pen. The days and hours
of it are flying over our heads like
clouds of windy day never to return
more every thing presses on
time I kiss thy hand to bid adieu, every absence which
follows it, are preludes to that eternal separation
which we are shortly to make
(Sterne, Tristram Shandy)