Presidential Pedestals

The author's current historical obsession is the Kennedy family. Pictured here are Robert F. and John F. Kennedy in 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis AP PHOTO

The author’s current historical obsession is the Kennedy family. Pictured here are Robert F. and John F. Kennedy in 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis AP PHOTO

I’ll be the first to admit that reading about the current election is sometimes so depressing that I simply … don’t. So instead, I like to study history.

The irony is, of course, that my favorite kind of history is U.S. presidential history. Ask me anything about Andrew Jackson’s two-ton Inauguration cheese wheel (which stank up the White House foyer for weeks) or Grover Cleveland’s clandestine cancer surgery aboard a yacht (surgeons even managed to keep his signature mustache intact for appearances, despite removing part of his freaking jaw), and I can go on and on. I’ve even read extensively about presidential pets.

But that’s easy scholarship, the kind you pick up in every cursory recounting of our 44 presidents. What I find most interesting about our leaders is not their ideological leanings and achievements, but their private lives and thoughts. The question is never what, but instead why and how.

Of course, not every president is really worth reading about. Some of them just didn’t do very much in general. Nobody is really clamoring for a 400-page biography of Zachary Taylor. (“Who?” you might ask, and you’d be perfectly justified in saying it.) Some of them, like Barack Obama, are just genuinely chill dudes, which is nice but not especially fun to read about.

No, the big titans of history are the ones who are not easily digested.

Right now, I’m deep in the Camelot mythos of the Kennedy family, because for all of the bad stuff that’s come to light — John F. Kennedy’s dad probably bought the election for him, the mob was definitely involved, his administration wanted to straight-up assassinate Fidel Castro, he had affairs with a million women, he was on all kinds of wild drugs for his many ailments and the press kept it all a secret because they were buddies with him — the fact remains that he inspired and continues to inspire a nation in a way that few people ever have or ever will. (Real talk, though, I admire Bobby more than Jack.)

Going further back in time, Thomas Jefferson is my favorite Founding Father because he was a brilliant, neurotic man who championed the loftiest of ideals and invented marvelously sneaky ways of excusing himself from living them. The central contradiction of his life is that he wrote the Declaration of Independence, but kept hundreds of slaves and never made a definitive public stance on slavery in his lifetime. (My feeling is that he knew it was wrong, but the man was always, always in debt and probably cognizant of the fact that ideals don’t put food on the table, cold as that is to say, and so rationalized his position. He was very much a product of his time.) Plus, he would get righteously salty whenever someone criticized his grammar.

Greatness is always problematic, in its way. Jefferson changed America, but he was no saint. And for that, he is worth studying.

There is no perfect leader, and we should not try to look for one, nor hoist men onto pedestals and blame them for falling off — lessons that resonate today.

Paige’s Picks of the Week

Those interested in also delving into Kennedy lore have dozens of choices, but I recommend two titles in particular: The Kennedy Brothers: The Rise and Fall of Jack and Bobby by Richard D. Mahoney and the lighter Grace and Power: The Private World of the Kennedy White House by Sally Bedell Smith. The latter in particular is useful as a primer to the central figures of the Kennedy inner circle. I’m presently working through the behemoth Robert Kennedy and His Times by Arthur M. Schlesinger. I also recommend watching clips of JFK and RFK’s more famous speeches on YouTube. RFK’s talk on “the mindless menace of violence” in particular resonates in today’s racially charged atmosphere.