I know that we are in the midst of the holiday season, but the study of American history is never far from my mind. And, no, I am not sucking up. I don't think any of my bosses even read my column.
I was doing a little early Christmas shopping this week - in a book store - and came across a whole table of discounted books with a common topic: the presidency. I guess that is a hot topic with an election year looming on the horizon.
There were books about individual presidents, including my personal favorite. No, not Jimmy Carter. TR. Theodore Rex. Teddy Roosevelt. The San Juan Hill and "speak softly and carry a big stick guy."
To use an old Porterdale phrase, Teddy Roosevelt was "much a man," and lived quite a remarkable life. He was from old money but had lots and lots of new ideas about protecting the rights and well-being of the common man. He was an avid hunter and outdoorsman but did more than any president, before or since, to protect our wildlife and green spaces - even before we knew what green spaces were.
He won the Nobel Peace prize, yet claimed that the day he engaged the Spanish in warfare on Cuba's Kettle Hill was the most exhilarating of his life. He was an Ivy League scholar, as well as a real live cowboy, and was just about single-handedly responsible for the building of the Panama Canal. He lost an eye in a boxing match while president, and made a 90-minute speech with a bullet lodged in his lung after a failed assassination attempt while running as a third-party candidate. He traversed the rivers of deepest Africa and South America and had a beloved children's toy, the Teddy Bear, named in his honor.
Again, Teddy Roosevelt was much a man. Unfortunately, they don't seem to make candidates like him anymore.
But, we were talking about my trip to the bookstore.
There were lots of other books on the table about other presidents, as well as books about all the presidents and the presidency in general. I had more time than money so I thumbed through a lot of them but didn't make a purchase.
The experience did set me to thinking, however, about history and how she judges the men who have worn the mantle of "Leader of the Free World." Sometimes the fog of desperation clouds the perception of the man in the Oval Office - sort of like the "can't see the forest for the trees" effect - and we have to rely on the passage of time to create enough distance between the man and his decisions to get a true perception of the job h has done.
But, as I stood at the bargain book table on the day the retailers call "Black Friday," my thoughts turned to one person and the tumultuous tenure he served.
And, speaking of history, what do you suppose history would say about a president who insisted on prolonging an unpopular war, even when the vast majority of his country's citizens were clamoring for him to give up and bring the troops home? What do you suppose history would say about a man who claimed, at first, he was fighting for one thing and then - in mid-stream - redefined the entire purpose of the war to make it more palatable to his own countrymen and those abroad.
What would history say about a president who was vilified by the press and called all sorts of names, whose abilities and mannerisms and appearance were constantly lampooned by editorialists and cartoonists alike? How would history treat a man whose folksy mannerisms and speech patterns would alienate the more sophisticated intellectuals in this nation; particularly when he was a man whose own cabinet often disagreed with his policies and his party sought to distance themselves from him? And what would they say about and a man who, in his first term, ascended to the presidency without receiving a majority of the popular vote throughout the nation?
How would history judge a president who blatantly ignored the Constitution, arresting dissidents right and left and keeping them locked away for months and even years, without benefit of a trial or bail, just on the oft chance that they might create dissidence or speak out against the administration or the war effort?
How would history judge a man who insisted on staying the course until the freedom of millions was a reality?
Well, I can tell you how history judged that president. They built a memorial in his honor on the national mall, at the opposite end of the reflection pool from the Washington Monument. And they put him on the penny and the five dollar bill.
And if anyone is shopping for my Christmas present, I'd really like to own a copy of Theodore Rex.