One afternoon during our recent trip to Disney World, we stopped into the Hall of Presidents. This is a frequent rest stop after a long day of walking around in the heat, when we need time off our feet to cool off and relax. The Hall has changed over the years, adding new Presidents, changing the story of the presidency that is told over the years. For some reason, this time, I was particularly moved by the final part of the show, where the curtains reveal all of the past (and current) presidents sitting or standing before you, being introduced and acknowledging their introduction.
Perhaps it is because I have read a lot of U.S. history and especially presidential biographies, but the scene sort of took my breath away. There on that stage were the 451 people to ever hold the office of the President of the United States. Of course, they weren’t the real people, but they appeared lifelike, and they were all there on the stage. Over the years, I’ve heard plenty of criticism of this person or that not being qualified to be President. Based on my reading of U.S. and presidential history, no one has ever been qualified for the job. It is an impossible job to begin with. Consider, there are only 45 people ever to have held this job. That doesn’t make it unique, but it comes awfully close. Sitting there in the air conditioned auditorium, facing those 46 simulacrums of U.S. presidents, I suddenly realized just how few people have ever known the burdens of that job.
My mind began to wander, and I began to wonder: what if all 45 U.S. presidents could appear together on a single stage. I imagined them wandering onto a stage, perfectly content in their surroundings, in the way that the players from the White Sox wander into the Iowa cornfield to place baseball. Instead of tossing a ball around, they toss around thoughts and ideas. They discuss the problems of the job with the only other people who have known those burdens. t would be fascinating to listen in on this gathering in the Hall of Presidents. What would Adams and Jefferson think of the party system that emerged out of their presidencies and what it has become? What would Truman have to say about the responsibility of the President and where the buck seems to stop today? What would Theodore Roosevelt think of the sound-bite? What would John Quincy Adams think of the House today? Would he even recognize it as a body for the people?
I could imagine Barack Obama asking Adams (the first) about the development of the Constitution–get it from the horse’s mouth, so to speak. I could imagine Jefferson (shyly) asking about modern farming and modern technology. I could imagine Lyndon Johnson glad-handing everyone, especially FDR. I could imagine Ronald Reagan telling Kennedy about the moon landings, and later, the space shuttle.
Except, none of that would happen–not at first. There would be an odd divide and a kind of two-tiered clustering of Presidents. All those who came after Abraham Lincoln would rush to him to greet him, they would shake his hand, they would surround him. There would be tears in their eyes. Those who came before Lincoln would wonder what this deference was all about. Eventually, the Civil War would emerge in the discussion, and the fears of the founders will be confirmed. And yet, the nation remains (so far) in tact and soon, Washington and Adams and Jefferson and Madison and Monroe and the ten additional presidents who came before Lincoln would understand his role and his sacrifice.
If they were smart, the current leaders would consult with those who came before them, not because they can solve the problems we have today, but because they are the only ones who can understand the weight of responsibility for those problem.
Eventually, the curtain descended and my reverie was broken, but ever since, I was left with that image of those 46 men standing on that stage and wondered what they would think of one another and the bond that they share across more than two centuries.
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