In 1857, Americans — well, American men — elected James Buchanan, a president who hid behind states’ rights and did virtually nothing to stop the spread of slavery. He allowed his cabinet of cronies and pro-secessionist southerners to run wild in their corruption.
As the nation hurtled toward civil war, Buchanan left it up to his successor to find a way out.
Sometimes, you get the president you need. Despite his generals’ best efforts to lose the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln preserved the Union, freed 3.1 million people from slavery and still managed to build the Continental Railroad.
Plenty of people, north and south, thought Lincoln was a dolt and a rube who couldn’t figure his way out of a burlap sack. Some newspapers went full racist, calling him “Abraham Africanus,” along with criticisms and accusations that would have broken a man of today.
But Lincoln was the president America needed, even if America didn’t know it.
Herbert Hoover had the know-how to keep Europeans from starving after World War I, but Franklin D. Roosevelt was the president Americans needed to rescue them out of the abyss of the Great Depression and to lead the country at the onset of World War II.
Hoover wanted to let the economy correct itself. Roosevelt knew people needed more than their own bootstraps.
They needed a president willing to help those living closest to the ground.
Law and order
Sometimes, when you vote your anger and fears, you get the president you deserve. In 1968, Richard Nixon wrapped his campaign in the “Southern Strategy,” tapping into the vein of white, working-class resentment, all while dog-whistling promises to restore “law and order.”
He was re-elected by a country that initially gave Watergate little thought, but he did generational damage to a nation that couldn’t conceive of their president as an unrepentant criminal.
Sometimes you need a president who reminds you of the importance of being an active and engaged citizen; lest we forget, we live under the single-most ingenious form of government in human history.
Because it is, the American presidency has withstood ineptitude, corruption and self-interest.
It has endured private misbehavior and public blunders.
The office was crafted with the understanding that presidents would make mistakes. We seem to be in a space right now where presidents either are flayed for every flub or people are pretending they didn’t hear what they just heard.
Power by virtue of our vote
Pundits and columnists get paid to opine, but time, tide and history reveal the true measure of a president. Following a temporary deal Jan. 25 to reopen the government, ultra-conservative pundit Ann Coulter tweeted that Donald Trump replaces the late George H.W. Bush as “the biggest wimp” to serve as president.
At 19, Bush flew 58 combat missions in World War II, including one in which he was shot down by the Japanese.
The closest Coulter has come to combat is once getting hit in the face with a cream pie.
The American presidency is at its best when it’s respected and understood by those who occupy the office. What makes America exceptional is this: Presidents possess power only because we allow it by virtue of our vote. If we fail to remember this, if we fail to be vigilant when granting them that power, we have only ourselves to blame for what happens next.
James Buchanan, by the way, tops most historians’ lists as the worst president. Ever.
We’re still here, aren’t we?
Reach Charita M. Goshay at 330-580-8313 or email@example.com.