- The Washington Times - Monday, November 27, 2000

Tired of pregnant chads, political low-ball and the blabber of instant analysis? Take a trip to the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History in Washington and the new permanent exhibition called "The American Presidency: A Glorious Burden." It may revive your faith.

This exhibition, which opened after election 2000, doesn't contain any artifacts about the 43rd president, since we still aren't absolutely, positively certain who he is. It does offer a perspective on whoever he is and provokes questions as to what we should expect of our two embattled candidates.

Will his weaknesses or strengths dominate? Will the stereotype ruthless Gore, lightweight Bush forever haunt him and us? Did Willie Brown, the mayor of San Francisco, catch the public perception when he called the contest between Mr. Gore and Mr. Bush a choice between "the insufferable and the incompetent"? Has either man the reserves of character to put country before politics?

This exhibition of the American president looks at each chief executive with an eye to history, politics and culture and shows how the total man who becomes president is shaped by the kind of country he governs. James Monroe was thought by many to be dull, stupid and indecisive, suffering from comparisons to Washington, Adams, Jefferson and Madison, but he was re-elected with every electoral vote but one. He was the "ordinary" man the public wanted at the time. Abraham Lincoln, as commander-in-chief, exceeded his authority as president far more than any of his predecessors. Franklin D. Roosevelt engaged in social experimentation to end unemployment and failed, barely, to pack the Supreme Court with obedient hacks when many of his programs were declared unconstitutional.

Historians debate whether the times determine the man or the man determines the times. It's a chicken-and-egg question. The president and those he governs are engaged in a continuous give-and-take. Lyndon Johnson, who worried over whether he could get the necessary public support to enact his "War on Poverty," understood the power and limits of the office: "The presidency has made every man who occupied it, no matter how small, bigger than he was; and no matter how big, not big enough for its demands." Abraham Lincoln put it another way: "I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me."

In the television age we're inclined to blame media simpletons for trivializing our politicians overstating the importance of dramatic visuals, a husband-wife kiss, a hug on a rope line, a change of fashion, a multisyllabic flub. But as the Smithsonian exhibition emphasizes, images and personality, both "incomparably grand and irreducibly human," are windows into the nature of the man who occupies the office as we watch how he manipulates his power both publicly and privately.

No matter what we think of Al or George W., there's a lot of miles between George Washington who said, "I have no lust for power," and Al Gore who said, "I'll do anything to win."

No matter how we depend on political parties, abundantly visible in Florida today, it's difficult not to nod appreciatively, if naively, on reading Washington's expressed wish that a candidate should be above partisanship. The first president called political parties "potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government."

We speculate now over whether the losing candidate this year would even attend the inauguration of the victor. If not, it wouldn't be the first time. John Adams boycotted his successor's inaugural and his son John Quincy Adams declined to attend the inaugural of Andrew Jackson.

History simplifies how we remember our presidents, reductively defining them by certain events a war, a Depression, a New Deal, a step forward in civil rights. As important as these events are, historians, like dress designers, play to contemporary fashions in interpreting past deeds. But character is always enjoined with good judgment. We want our presidents to know when to work the levers of power and when to leave them alone. This time, maybe more than ever.

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