Presidents, for good or ill, captivate the public’s imagination in a way that other taxpayer-funded officials don’t. We might like our own congressional representative just fine, and we regularly return our senators to six years of power without a second thought about them. But they don’t matter to us, really.
We just love our presidents.
Presidential historian Douglas Brinkley — yes, he’s written books about other important cultural and historical luminaries, from civil-rights figure Rosa Parks to the psychedelically fueled gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, but it’s his presidential biographies and expertise that get him invited on C-SPAN and keep him busy as a cable TV news analyst — puts America’s fondness for federal chief executives in tangible terms. Pitch a publisher a book about Sens. Scoop Jackson or Sam Rayburn, and there’s no interest. But pitch a presidential biography, and the publisher’s eyes light up.
“We bask in presidents,” Brinkley told a robust crowd in Symphony Hall last night, as the fourth speaker in the 2019-20 season of our Boston Speakers Series. And unless you pull out a $10 bill, or a dollar coin festooned with Susan B. Anthony or Sacagawea, your pocket or purse is (one hopes) host to Federal Reserve notes and change bearing the visages of American presidents.
"I briefly thought about becoming a folklorist, but returned to history," Brinkley told a campus audience during a visit with Lesley students and faculty on Monday. "It’s just what I love. It’s my passion, it’s my sport. I’m interested in it to the extreme."
Brinkley’s passion for presidents was palpable during his hour-long lecture at Symphony Hall, as he spun riveting tales of presidents he has both written about (Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Delano Roosevelt) and ones he hasn’t (George Washington, Abraham Lincoln), as well as the people who served them. He kicked off the evening with an encomium to Charles Thomson, the Irish-born secretary of the Continental Congress, whom Brinkley likened to “the Sam Adams of Philadelphia,” and on whom the other founding fathers relied to persuade George Washington to serve as president.
Washington was mythologized early on, even during his lifetime, and his own decision to step away from power after two terms, a repudiation of the idea of trading the British tyranny for a homegrown one, became the custom until the fourth election of Franklin Roosevelt, which spawned the 22nd Amendment, ratified in 1951, limiting the president to two elected terms. Fifteen presidents later, Abraham Lincoln — scorned by the Confederacy and northern anti-abolitionists — would be venerated after his assassination, with his signature beard clipped from his corpse and fashioned into rings, one of which Teddy Roosevelt wore.
"We beat up on them when they’re in the White House” but then “a nostalgia kicks in,” Brinkley said during his Lesley campus visit.
Even presidents not treated as gods are widely beloved, at least some of the time. “Old Hickory” Andrew Jackson, at various points in history, was adored for his heroics in the War of 1812 and, though despised for his treatment of Native Americans, was “among the top 10 presidents” until President Donald J. Trump placed his bust in the Oval Office. “Now, he’s sinking” in popularity, Brinkley said of Jackson.
Of Trump himself, Brinkley said, “I don’t know what the hell we’re in,” as compared with definable presidential eras of progressivism and Reagan Republicanism.
Brinkley pointed to the long legacy of Republican rule from the years after the death of Lincoln through 1932 (with the exception of Democrat Grover Cleveland). More important than mere party affiliation, however, was an eight-decade era of progressivism. From Teddy Roosevelt’s preservation of natural resources — the National Parks system — and trust-busting (as did his successor, William Howard Taft), through FDR’s launch in the 1930s of Social Security, the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Works Progress Administration and other New Deal programs and policies, through the space program under John F. Kennedy, subsidized school lunches, Medicaid and Medicare ushered in by Lyndon Johnson, through Jimmy Carter’s energy-conservation policies, Progressives carried the day through 1980.
And Teddy Roosevelt and Taft weren’t the only Republicans with progressive bona fides: Dwight D. Eisenhower paved the way for the National Highway System, and his vice president (and Johnson successor) Richard Nixon nurtured clean-water initiatives, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act, a jobs program for the poor.
But with the election of Ronald Regan, Brinkley indicated, government was no longer seen as a friend, but as a financially rapacious foe. Even left-leaning president Bill Clinton had to rule through “triangulation,” co-opting Republican ideals like welfare reform and tough anti-crime measures to maintain power. Barack Obama, for his part, was at best a progressive firewall, getting bailouts of the auto and banking industries, and launching the Affordable Care Act, early, while doing his best to stem the repeal of long-established progressive policies and norms.
At least until President Trump took office.
While Brinkley didn’t offer an extensive assessment of the current U.S. president’s performance, he urged everyone to vote, as 2020 will be the difference between seeing Trump as a “weird one-termer” whose tenure is replete with corruption, or a new, uncertain era.
A bit of magic (or “majic”)
Lesley University President Janet L. Steinmayer kicked off the proceedings, alluding to Brinkley’s experimental, on-the-road professorship, which he wrote about in his book “The Majic Bus: An American Odyssey."
“I hope when you think of us, that you’ll be reminded of the transformative power of this series, and of the ‘human arts,’ and the way that they can bring us all together and connect us,” Steinmayer said from the podium, under a jumbo screen bearing the university’s logo.
“In the end, of course, it’s all magic,” she added and, with a flourish, gesticulated toward the overhead screen, whereupon the logo vanished into a puff of animated smoke, before reappearing, a visual effect that was created by Lesley animation student Branden Blowey.