On presidents and our discontents

With yet another passing of that cobbled-together holiday known as “Presidents Day,” it’s a good time to examine our attitudes toward the office of the presidency and the men — thus far, only men — who have filled it.

Much has been made of Americans’ tendency to belittle the mere politician who may be occupying the White House at any time. We do much the same to the candidates for the job, regarding them as lilliputians compared to the presidents and presidential hopefuls we have known and read about in the past. But we have been doing much the same since very nearly the beginning of the republic.

How many of his contemporaries do you suppose thought John Adams — “obnoxious and disliked” by his own admission — was a worthy successor to the great General Washington? Not many, it would seem, since the voters tossed out the first President Adams after a single term.

Editorial writers called Abraham Lincoln names that might have embarrassed the hyenas and baboons to which he was all too frequently likened. It appears only Washington enjoyed the unqualified admiration of his contemporaries as well as posterity. The succession of presidents from Washington to Grant, wrote Henry Adams in the last third of the 19th century, had pretty well disproved the theory of evolution.

Nearly three decades ago, comedian Norm Crosby looked at the Republican and Democratic candidates for president and asked: “Is this it? Out of a country of 250 million people, these two are the best we could come up with? Were the others all busy?”

That is a typical comment every four years. But what makes it interesting now is that Crosby was speaking in the fall of 1980, when one of the candidates was President Jimmy Carter and the other was Ronald Reagan, now regarded by many as one of the great presidents.

When President McKinley was assassinated in 1901, people worried about how the country would fare under his young, energetic and unpredictable successor, Teddy Roosevelt: “Oh, no! That damn cowboy is president of the United States!”

When Harry Truman left the White House, he was held by his countrymen in what might generously be called “minimum high regard.” Now it is hard to find anyone, Democrat or Republican, who does not speak highly of him.

Are the current contenders mere lilliputians or potential giants? Only time will tell. New Hampshire has already made its primary choices and many other states have followed, with several more to go. The best we can do is to try our best to make an intelligent choice in November and pray.

Pray a lot.