My daughters loved to do it as family entertainment.
They’d bring a friend into the living room where I was, whisper to her, “watch this” and then announce:
“OK Dad, number 19.”
Like clicking on a computer, I’d begin a detailed description of our country’s 19th president, Rutherford B. (for Birchard, a family name) Hayes. I’d spout off dates, events, VP, home state, physical appearance, personality and various other facts, some important, most trivial.
Figuring it was a set-up, the friend would insist on picking her own number. I’d do the same thing.
After three or four numbers, my daughter would boast, “I told you, my dad knows a lot about the presidents”.
For the past several years I’ve held 50 third-graders at Liberty Christian School spell bound each spring as I spend nearly an hour lecturing on the American presidents, armed with nothing more than colorful portraits and a bust of Lincoln.
I don’t need notes.
I’m a presidential savant.
Lincoln died at ten seconds past the 22nd minute of 7:00AM on Saturday, April 15, 1865. He had been laid diagonally on a short bed at the Henry Peterson boarding house across the street from Ford’s theater. He was 56 years old. Edwin M. (for McMasters) Stanton, Lincoln’s Secretary of War, was said to have famously remarked, “Now he belongs to the ages”.
Nothing in the preceding paragraph was googled – except in my head.
I’ve watched the movie Lincoln 22 times – but most of those details aren’t in the film.
When Beth and I were served at a local restaurant by a young aspiring actor named Chester, I proceeded to share salient facts about his presidential namesake.
Yes, that’s right, I’m a weirdo.
Blame my mother, who, while a sales lady, brought home a free set of World Book encyclopedias when I was ten. Included was a volume on the presidents.
I devoured it.
I was hooked – on our country and the fascinating and often heroic and tragic men who have led it.
Over the past half century, I’ve moved beyond the statistics of the presidents, which I mastered as a child. I’ve gained a deeper and more nuanced appreciation for the temperaments, gifts, strengths, weaknesses – the successes and failures – and the diverse personalities of the 43 men who have held the nation’s – and now the world’s – most powerful office.
One thing I’ve learned is that character counts. Our nation has survived and prospered because of it. Without wise and self-disciplined leaders of integrity in times of crisis we would have been doomed.
Another thing I’ve learned is that even the most powerful and greatest of men are mere mortals.
When little Toto pulled back the curtain on the Great and Powerful Wizard of Oz, Dorothy and her companions discovered the diminutive, white-haired and cherubic-faced senior citizen who had been performing an elaborate and impressive disguise.
When Dorothy upbraided him as “a very bad man”, the old gent replied, “No my dear, I’m a very good man. I’m just a very bad Wizard”.
The Republicans presented Donald Trump last week and attempted, with the valuable help of his impressive children, to unveil the decent, humble and caring man behind the public curtain of his uniquely authoritative candidacy and personality. We were invited to behold the real Donald Trump – not the media’s alleged caricature.
This week it will be the Democrats’ turn to try and humanize Hillary Clinton – who has been at the controversial epicenter of the public’s eye for a quarter century.
What’s behind the curtail matters – a lot.
No president has ever fully idealized this country’s vision of what a president should be – certainly not while in office. Only history can correct our frequent myopia.
Trump and Clinton enter the fall campaign as the least popular and trusted candidates in American history. There is little comfort for them – or the rest of us – in thinking it’s going to get easier next year. The history of the “glorious burden” of the presidency clearly argues against it.
It would be a grave mistake for any president to go into this storm without a firm moral compass. Those who attempted it ended shipwrecked.
When he was secretly diagnosed with cancer of the jaw, President Grover Cleveland, once the burly sheriff of Buffalo, said that he was reminded of “how weak the strongest man is”.
What is true physically is equally true politically and morally.
“Nearly all men can stand adversity,” observed Lincoln, “but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power”.
Either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton will place his or her hand on the Bible and swear to uphold the Constitution of the United States. When they utter the words, “So help me God” on that cold January noon they will assume more power than any other person on earth.
May we pray that the scriptures will be opened to King David’s pledge:
“I will lead a life of integrity … I will reject perverse ideas … I will not endure conceit and pride …My daily task will be to ferret out the wicked and free the city of the Lord from their grip” (Psalm 101, NLT).
The curtain will be pulled back.
Character will be revealed.
It’s the nature of the office.