My children have a floor puzzle depicting all 43 presidents, in order. It's quite an impressive and thought-provoking sight to see them all lined up. No doubt the very first thought provoked in the minds of somewhere around 56% of viewers would be, "Look! They're all the same color! If you buy a newer version of the puzzle next month, they won't be!"
That's as may be. What's more interesting than the similarities are the trends - the Presidential attributes that change over time.
There's the slow evolution of mens' formal wear - as George Washington's breeches and wig give way to Abe Lincoln's long pants, string tie and top hat, thence to modern neckties and, with JFK, no more hats.
The most fascinating study, however, is their facial expressions.
The first several presidents lived before the invention of photography. We know what they looked like mostly from paintings and statues made at the time. To be painted, these very active leaders had to sit or stand still for hours at a time while the artist worked frantically; perhaps that's why, to a man, they all look rather grim, uncomfortable, and frustrated.
The first few presidents who were photographed aren't much better, as old-time photo sitting wasn't any more comfortable or that much faster - early photographers used iron clamps to make people hold their heads still.
About the turn of the 19th century, the technology of photography got good enough to take action photos - to capture people more or less naturally, as they went about their daily business. With the advent of modern photography, we start seeing presidents with smiles.
Teddy Roosevelt has his trademark "Bully!" grin, FDR his patrician pearly whites, and so on down the line. In fact, pretty much every modern president smiles at almost every public occasion, and on the puzzle, the whole last line is nothing but smiling faces.
There's a great truth and reality to be found here: In addition to his other duties, the President of the United States is supposed to be First Cheerleader. He is supposed to cheer us up - to make Americans feel better about themselves, their country, and their future.
Not too many presidents have faced grimmer circumstances than Franklin Roosevelt, what with the Great Depression, World War II, and his poor personal health. Yet try and picture him in your mind - he almost certainly has a big, wide smile.
His rhetoric matched the smile. In his first inaugural address, at the very lowest point of the Depression, he told Americans that "that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself." He listed the great troubles and trials of the nation, yes, but then he went on to encourage:
Yet our distress comes from no failure of substance. We are stricken by no plague of locusts. Compared with the perils which our forefathers conquered because they believed and were not afraid, we have still much to be thankful for. Nature still offers her bounty and human efforts have multiplied it. Plenty is at our doorstep...
Great presidents, one and all, have not minimized the pressing problems of their age - but neither are they defeatist. You can't come away from a great presidential speech without feeling uplifted and optimistic.
Eisenhower, drawing on his victorious war leadership, demanded an optimistic attitude whatever the circumstances. Reagan running for re-election declared "It's morning again in America!" and made us all believe it.
Now when you are running for president, it's appropriate to complain about whatever mistakes the other guy made. After all, if the current president did such a great job, why should voters choose you instead? But down through history, upon accepting the laurels of victory most of our presidents have realized that in order to be president, they, too, must portray the country in its best light at all times.
The exceptions stand out. His first month in office, Jimmy Carter gave a speech from the Oval Office dressed in not a suit but a warm fuzzy sweater - saying that he, like most Americans, needed to get used to lowering thermostats to save money.
A few months later, in his so-called Malaise speech, he spoke quite accurately about all the reasons Americans had lost confidence in themselves and in government, then went on to propose yet more of the same government programs that had so signally failed. Is it any wonder that a president preaching limits and failures lost to a challenger offering hope, optimism, and, yes, you heard Mr. Reagan right, he offered Change!
The last few years have been hard ones for America, years of terrorist attacks, war, and a struggling economy. We all are aware of the challenges we face; that's no doubt why Barack Hussein Obama's message of "Hope and Change" struck such a chord. For darn sure we need some Hope; for darn sure there are some things that need a Change.
The problem is that any change threatens someone and those who think they'll lose by the change drag their feet. Persuading people to actually make the change is a major part of the job of First Cheerleader.
We are not, however, getting the Change we need from the President-elect himself. As challenger, it's his place, his duty, and his necessity to criticize the old guard, but that ended when he accepted John McCain's concession phone call. He's not up against The Man anymore - he is The Man.
It's his job to cheer us up; its his job to restore confidence in America; its his job to defend the American way of life, it's his job to figure out which changes we need, and it's his job to sell them.
What we don't need to hear is what he said the other day: that our nation hangs by its fingernails. We know that, what we don't know is how we're going to get out of the situation we're in.
I urge Congress to move as quickly as possible on behalf of the American people, for every day we wait or point fingers or drag our feet, more Americans will lose their jobs, more families will lose their savings, more dreams will be deferred and denied, and our nation will sink deeper into a crisis that at some point we may not be able to reverse...
I know the scale of this plan is unprecedented, but so is the severity of our situation... [emphasis added]
Having taken us down into the depths of the deepest pits of despair, he trots out the same tired old government programs that have failed utterly everywhere else they've been tried. It's frightening to compare his speech to Carter's - they both blame Americans for feeling lousy, they both demand that we have confidence in the government - that is to say, in them - and then call for huge amounts of government spending and for having the government take control of various sectors of the economy.
Even in his inaugural address, where optimism is almost an official requirement, our new president echoed similar themes. He said:
On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn out dogmas, that for far too long have strangled our politics.
And then he proceeded to roll out the standard petty grievances of the Left:
...Our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions - that time has surely passed.
...The stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply.
Most offensive of all, he joined with the frothiest, most illegitimate, worst extremists of the Left as condemning the Bush Administration as a tyrant unworthy of American tradition and history. After a review of America's victory over Communism, he said:
We are the keepers of this legacy. Guided by these principles once more, we can meet those new threats that demand even greater effort... [emphasis added]
Yes, just as Chris Matthews would have it, we are now all to be saved from Chimpy McBushitler by the advent of The One! Truly is this not an inauguration, but a Restoration, and we subjects need merely wait for the commands to issue from On High in order for all to be right with the world.
In what could hardly be a greater contrast, Reagan called upon Americans not to wait for a government plan, but to go out and do what they do best: work hard, use your brain, innovate, start a company, create jobs, and have faith in the future that you make for yourself.
In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem. From time to time we've been tempted to believe that society has become too complex to be managed by self-rule, that government by an elite group is superior to government for, by, and of the people. Well, if no one among us is capable of governing himself, then who among us has the capacity to govern someone else?... Government can and must provide opportunity, not smother it; foster productivity, not stifle it. [emphasis added]
The left still scratches its collective head, wondering how Reagan could "magic" America back to prosperity after Carter's well-meaning textbook-perfect leftist failures. There was no magic about it, and the older generation of Democrats in the days of FDR understood it very well: the magic is in the free initiative of the American people.
When the American people feel that they can go out and better themselves without being dragged down by taxes and excessive regulations, they do so, and we are all better off. When the American people fear that behind every door is a bureaucrat or greedy tax collector, they stash their money under the mattress and the economy stalls. How hard is that to understand?
Too hard for most of our leaders today, alas. Worst of all, it's too hard for our First Cheerleader, who does not appear even to understand the role. He'd rather don the hairshirt and flail around with a whip instead of a pom-pom.
It's going to be a long four years.