When President Ronald Reagan left office in 1989, he would often joke that, “After eight years of living in government housing I find myself in the prime of my life and out of work!” He was 77 years old at the time, but certainly believed there was much of life still to be lived.
Prior to being president, Reagan had been a radio sports announcer, an actor, president of the Screen Actors Guild, and governor of California. And while there was much he enjoyed about his final role as president of the United States, when his two terms ended, he returned to Los Angeles eager to start a new chapter in his remarkable life.
Reagan always saw himself as merely a temporary caretaker of the role of president. What happened before and after also mattered.
Perspective is key, and Reagan had it in abundance. It’s one of the many lessons we can still learn from him. Do we keep the office of the presidency in perspective? Do we see each of the 44 men who have served in that office as temporary caretakers? Or does any one president truly define the office of the presidency itself?
On Presidents Day, perhaps it would be helpful to once again consider the presidency through the lens of history, rather than the current lens of hysteria.
In elementary school we all remember seeing the pictures of each of the presidents lined up – first in colored paintings with white wigs and ruffled jabots; then in black and white photographs with cravats or bow ties and tall collared shirts, many with beards or glasses. Later our presidents were photographed in full color, each one becoming more clear in both resolution and his place in history.
As a child I would look at their faces with curiosity, and wonder what about them was so uniquely exceptional that they could rise to the very top of our nation’s leadership. Now, as an adult, I wonder even more what makes them alike and binds them together in common experience and responsibility.
Yes, our presidents represent us, but I believe they also reflect us. They reflect the original desires upon which we were founded – the desire for freedom and independence; to self-govern and be limited only by our own imagination, ingenuity and work ethic; to worship, or not, as we choose; to dream and build and explore and expand. These were the traits of the earliest Americans, without whom there would never have been a George Washington or a Declaration of Independence or a Constitution.
No one man could have inspired, established or defined the seeds of our nation’s birth. They were planted by those who risked and sacrificed everything in pursuit of a wish, a dream, a calling.
There’s a certain restlessness within our heritage – the desire to do more, experience more, know more. Our early presidents did not themselves embody the New World; rather, they reflected the early settlers who desired a new political structure, a new way of life, and a new start. We, the people, founded this great nation – not we, the politicians.
Our nation quickly grew past its infancy and not only established its place in the world, but became a leader on the world stage. Our growing pains – wars at home and abroad – renewed the American people’s resolve to not give up, to continue to invent and create, to build and experiment.
America quickly went from merely surviving to providing lives of abundance and luxury and convenience, the likes of which the world could never have imagined.
Our leaders presided over important decisions, but it was the people of America who kept their faith, fought for their land, dreamed and worked and imagined and innovated in astounding ways that not only changed our nation, but altered the future of the world.
Recently, we have seen many Americans disheartened by our presidents’ decisions and styles of leadership. But are we really so myopic as to believe that this nation is defined by its current president? Or its former ones? Or its future ones? Any one person, even a president, does not symbolize us all.
But they do embody the humanity of us all. Like every American, our presidents are flawed. At times they have all made bad decisions, disappointed us and failed us. Yet every four years, we hope for and believe in an unreasonable level of heroism from them – one that is unfair to expect.
We want our leaders to be authentic and relatable, but we really don’t want to see or know about their flaws. We expect them to be strong, smart and compassionate, yet we are always disappointed, regardless of how exceptional they are. We forget that they, like us, are human. Mere mortals.
And yet our leaders are also a reflection of the best of us as a people. Our presidents have been farmers and lawyers, politicians and military officers, actors and yes, even an entrepreneurial businessman. They are a snapshot of America – a reflection of our values and principles, our energy and effort. They reflect our pursuit of excellence and our exceptionalism. They reflect the national story that we are writing together – one which in the history of the world has never been written this way, this quickly, this successfully.
We have much to celebrate and be proud of in those who have led us, just as we have much to celebrate and applaud in who we are as a nation and a people.
So on President’s Day, let us honor those who have served in that important role, while being mindful that they are only temporary caretakers of that office. The true caretakers of our nation are you and I and our neighbors and families; our community leaders, local volunteers, and brave men and women in uniform; those who grow our food, service our cars, fix our roads, imagine the future.
Collectively we have created the success of this nation. And we will continue to guard and guide its future long after any one man (or eventual woman) steps into, and then out of, that grand Oval Office.