Top 1 Magazine

Top One Magazine

America Is Sick of Presidents

The White House Historical Association was founded by Jacqueline Kennedy, and for the past four decades it has partially funded itself via the sales of annual Christmas ornaments depicting things like Warren Harding’s presidential railroad car or Benjamin Harrison’s introduction of electrified White House Christmas tree lights. Selling collectibles to fund preservation and education efforts at the historic residence is not exactly a controversial cause. But over the past decade or so, the organization has encountered an odd dynamic in sales patterns.

“We have people that come in and say, I’m not going to buy the ornament as long as this person is president or that person is president,” says Stewart McLaurin, the organization’s leader.

It’s not that these people don’t want an ornament of a president who’s not in their party. It’s that they’ll refuse to buy any White House ornament during a period when the presidency is under unfriendly control — meaning that, even though this year’s ornament is set to depict the executive mansion as it looked under Republican Gerald Ford, “We’ll have people who come in and say I’m not going to buy that ornament as long as Joe Biden is president.”

McLaurin says sales balance out and remain healthy, but this seesawing of interest reflects a very different worldview from the one that helped his organization become a Washington cultural institution. “People in this mind think of the White House as now,” he says. “We don’t think of the White House as now. We think of the White House as a stage that American history has been played out on for 223 years.”

If that view is gaining a foothold among not-especially-radical folks who’d otherwise be glad to pay $24.95 for an ornament featuring Lyndon Johnson’s 1967 Blue Room Christmas Tree, it’s probably even more pronounced among the general public.

There’s no shortage of data on the public’s view of the sitting president. But polling on the presidency, that historic symbol of American nationhood, is harder to come by. And yet, anecdotally, it appears that having a country where any chief executive is lucky to crack 50 percent approval ratings is having an impact on the institution itself. The long weekend formerly known as George Washington’s Birthday may now be known as Presidents Day, but the country is in no mood to celebrate.

Consider the book market, where the decades-long run of doorstop-sized biographies of presidents seems to have slowed, with no author having yet assumed the mantle of the late David McCullough. Hardcover nonfiction is down across the board, as is history. “We talk about it all the time as agents and publishers, what do people want?” says Rafe Sagalyn, the prominent Washington literary agent. “Well, people want escapism. A book that takes them somewhere different is good.”

Sagalyn says one replacement for president books among readers of serious nonfiction involves tomes about what he calls “president-adjacent” characters, like Stacey Schiff’s 2022 book about Revolutionary War agitator Samuel Adams or Susan Glasser and Peter Baker’s bestseller about longtime Washington fixer James A. Baker III. By their very subjects, these books tend to have more room for nuance — leaving readers with more sense of discovery, and relying less on a shared pantheon of heroes.

Even the comparatively few president books that are due out this year suggest readers’ curiosity isn’t consumed by larger-than-life statesmen. Instead, they’re focused on what Bruce Nichols, the publisher of Little, Brown and Company, described to me as “non-canonical” chief executives. For instance, a rare biography of James Garfield is due this summer. Garfield spent a scant six months in office in 1881 before dying of a gunshot wound by an assassin, but the rest of his life was fascinating — or at least readers had better hope it was. Likewise, Richard Norton Smith’s long-planned biography of Gerald Ford, a 2½-year White House resident, is expected in April.

In the broad sweep of American history, it’s no surprise that interest in the presidency would change over time. The framers themselves were wary of too much falderal around the office. Over the years, we’ve gone up and down, from pious lessons featuring George Washington and the cherry tree to dishy gossip featuring JFK and Marilyn Monroe. But these days, with significant portions of the country telling pollsters that the identity of the president affects their day-to-day happiness, we have a situation that might confound hero-worshippers and dirt-diggers alike: On any given day, around half the country is liable to find the institution itself a painful subject to think about.

That new reality may complicate life for the Washington cottage industry built around the assumption that America is always hungry for trivia and wisdom about presidents.

The industry’s output, so far, seems unaffected by the national mood. Books in the venerable genre of “presidents — they’re just like us” continue to be published: A 2021 book about presidential dogs (it sold poorly), a 2022 volume about presidential best friends (it beat expectations), a brand-new book about presidents and food. The former CNN political analyst Chris Cillizza’s book about presidents and sports will be published later this spring.

The anecdotes that populate books like these represent essential tradecraft for Tevi Troy. A former official in the George W. Bush administration and the author of books on presidential pop culture (2013’s What Jefferson Read, Ike Watched, and Obama Tweeted), presidential disaster-management (2016’s Shall We Wake the President?), and presidential staff rivalries (2020’s Fight House), he’s someone who has turned the marshaling of presidential arcana into a career, or at least a robust side hustle. (He’s also a fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center.)

Last year, Troy combined his love for all things presidential with a business that’s potentially more lucrative than selling nonfiction books: management consulting. He launched 1600 Lessons, an executive-coaching series that builds its lessons around presidential leadership. “The idea is that the presidential concepts are really applicable in the business world, or in running any organization,” he says. “It’s actionable, specific recommendations. Educational because of teaching about these presidents, but also informative and entertaining, because it’s based on all these great stories of presidents.”

Priced in the five figures, the five-part workshop’s early clients have included Lockheed Martin and Eli Lilly.

Why would anyone — especially a publicly traded company — hire a D.C. think tank maven to craft management lessons based on an office that so many Americans associate with reviled figures? The answer is easy, Troy says: “Presidents are one of the few things that still connect us as a nation. The Super Bowl was the most watched event of the year, and only one-third of Americans watched it. Everyone knows who the president is.” So if you’re putting together management-coaching presentations about preparation or succession-planning, to cite two of Troy’s sessions, the presidency represents a relatable set piece. (He also makes clear he teaches about leadership errors, like Eisenhower’s failure to prepare the way for a successor.)

Thus, while most Americans may think of the upcoming long weekend as a time for linen sales, Troy is glad to be an outlier. Presidents Day, he says, is “like my Christmas and Thanksgiving Day rolled into one.”

One possibly surprising person who doesn’t share that sentiment: Michael Beschloss, the NBC presidential historian and perhaps Washington’s best-known source of stories about the presidency. Once upon a time, Washington’s Birthday on February 22 was a federal holiday, and many states also took off Lincoln’s birthday, 10 days earlier. But as the holiday calendar changed to be built around three-day weekends, the two were combined into a single day without a namesake.

“Many people think that Presidents Day is a moment intended for worship of all presidents equally — even Donald Trump, Warren Harding and James Buchanan. To my mind, this point of view is basically royalist and pre-1776,” says Beschloss, who has become increasingly vocal in his concern for the state of American democracy. “Underlying this would be a ridiculous premise that all presidents in history must be wonderful, just in differing ways.” By contrast, the founders’ view “was to assume that someone elected president could turn out to be a scoundrel or incompetent, and to build a system that protects the American people from such dangers.”

In the context of current events, Beschloss says he wouldn’t be surprised if readers’ interest turned away from themes that venerate presidents for their own sake.

“People are understandably more resistant to treacly stories of past presidents that assume that these 44 people were all basically good guys, trying, more or less, to do the right things,” he says. “In these anxious, often ugly times, sadly, that is an approach that many Americans will not find very convincing.”

For his part, the White House Historical Association’s McLaurin is planning to spend the weekend in a place where a more respectful attitude may still prevail: overseas. Working with American expats and the State Department, the association is organizing wreath-layings at statues of American presidents located in 13 foreign countries ranging from Australia to Bulgaria to Cameroon.

McLaurin says he will be on hand for six wreath-layings in London and one in Scotland.

“I think it’s a wonderful education tool,” he told me this week, shortly before flying across the Atlantic. “It gets attention in these local places, media attention and Americans’ attention that are living abroad and doing something on Presidents Day to honor an American president. And that’s the type of thing we do. There is political noise in the air, but our mission is to persevere and keep doing what we were founded to do 60 years ago.”

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