I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about dead presidents this year. It’s not because it’s Christmastime and I’ve been handing dead presidents to retailers like Amazon.
I’ve been thinking about dead presidents because this last year, I read Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book, “The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism.” By “reading” what I really mean is listening to the audiobook (because the book is over 750 pages and I’ve got a life and family).
A few years ago I read Goodwin’s book about Lincoln, Team of Rivals, and I learned my lesson. Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice shame on me. Doris Kearns Goodwin spent over 7 years writing “The Bully Pulpit.” When reading, you can’t help but realize the superabundance of newspaper articles, editorials, interviews, journals, calendars, and dairies she combed through to master the material.
I’m taken by the number of books she has read about both William Howard Taft and Teddy Roosevelt. Goodwin chronicles every aspect, every facet, of their lives, beginning with the births of their mothers and fathers to who they dated to what grades they received in school. I’d find it hard to believe that anything has been written about either Roosevelt or Taft that Doris Kearns Goodwin either hasn’t read or didn’t write.
I say all of that to say: When it comes to these two Presidents, Doris Kearns Goodwin knows every conceivable detail…750, small print pages worth.
Just think: All of that work, over Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft?
While Roosevelt and Taft might someday come in handy as Trivial Pursuit answers, there have been 44 Presidents of The United States, and most Presidents aren’t that memorable.
Not many – without the aid of Google – can recall the grand ambitions of Grover Cleveland or Benjamin Harrison. Simply put, not every President is remarkable. They can’t all be hefty enough to get stuck in a bathtub after all.
But all U.S. Presidents were – at the very least – one of the most powerful people on the planet during their day. They were either making and guiding a new nation or shaping and leading the world’s most powerful one; yet few of us can name even half of them.
Forty-four of the most influential people to have ever lived, but few people can name 22 of those 44.
Like me, we have to read books to remind ourselves of the issues which seemed like the most important and pressing matters in the world at the time. Looking back we can see some issues were incredibly significant. Many were not.
We care little about the muckrakers and why Roosevelt’s and Taft’s Republican Party was so strongly in favor of unions and their rights to collectively bargain.
There was a time, however, when certain minute details kept people up at night, grayed thinning hairlines, and wrinkled brows. It was all terribly important…once. But as our lives have proven, it wasn’t all that memorable.
Few details turn out to matter. Much of what humans fret about as impactful doesn’t last either.
We shouldn’t be surprised, though. Most things don’t last.