John F. Kennedy was president when I was born, but four months later he was gone.
The first president I remember was Lyndon Johnson, whom I called Howard. I thought that was his actual name — a motelier president — just as I thought the woman my widowed father began dating when I was 6 was named Mayor. Mary Seton Lindsay, who would become my second mother, was amused enough to let it go for a while — until around the time Mayor John Lindsay succumbed to calling himself a Democrat.
Presidents are gigantic figures when you’re a kid. But they’re also that rare entity that grows bigger the older one gets. Johnson was larger than life to me because his picture was on my classroom wall. For half a million American boys, he was giant enough to pluck them from their jobs and drop them into the jungles of Vietnam. He was bigger, still, to wizened world leaders who would watch his successor, Richard Nixon, realign the political globe in an effort to turn Johnson’s lemons into the lemonade we now buy from China. But that’s another story.
We’ve always heard from presidents. Even Calvin “Silent Cal” Coolidge had gems (see his poem on persistence). But in recent years, it seems, we can’t get our presidents to stop talking. Could we possibly hear more from the current White House occupant? Could we have endured one more word out of Barack Obama during his eight years in office?
It’s enough to make Presidents Day feel greedy and superfluous.
Used to be we were interrupted only now and then — a special live address from the Oval Office that mattered. Ronald Reagan’s pitch-perfect message to a grieving nation following the Challenger explosion comes to mind. In this millennium, we get March Madness picks and “covfefe” at 12:06 a.m. on a Wednesday.
It’s tempting to say past presidents understood that less is more, but the trend to presidential ubiquitousness certainly has more to do with modern media and political tactics. This consultant routinely counsels clients, “If you’re not on offense, you’re on defense,” and we see that axiom play out minute by minute from Washington.
The result is a presidency growing impossibly larger — a national obsession at the expense of important local matters we used to discuss. More than that, the presidency has begun burrowing into our souls. Wasn’t it big enough already?
George Washington couldn’t foresee Twitter or late-night comedy shows. But he was keenly aware of human nature and feared the presidency would grow too powerful. So he shocked the world by stepping down after two terms.
It’s his example we also honor this holiday. The leader who knew who was boss — we.
Happy birthday, Mr. President. The nation misses you.
William F.B. O’Reilly is a consultant to Republicans.