Monday, November 2, 2015

Welcome to a world where America no longer fears dead presidents

Much was made of the fact that in September, Queen Elizabeth II surpassed her ancestor Queen Victoria as the longest serving monarch of the United Kingdom. Plenty of articles, essays, blogs and other reflections were given as to the impact Queen Elizabeth has had on her country and on the world as a whole during her over-sixty years on the throne. The British people, for the most part, seem to appreciate how the long-serving monarch is a steadfast constant in this ever-changing world. The recent celebration of Queen Elizabeth surpassing Victoria’s reign is a reminder of how people like when they don’t have to worry about an illness or assassination taking away their heads of state.

On the other side of the Atlantic, the country that had a violent revolution against a tyrannical British monarch also passed another important milestone. As the online site Quartz put it, on October 28th, 2015, it has been “18,967 days since a US president died in office, [which] means the nation has now entered its longest period without losing a president to an assassin or illness.” The current period surpasses the record for presidents not dying in office that lasted from the inauguration of the 1st President, George Washington, in 1789 to the death of the 9th President, William Henry Harrison, in 1841.

This constant death of American presidents is something that lingered for a long time in our popular culture. There is even the popular myth about the Curse of Tippecanoe, about a devastated Indian chief who cursed the leader of the United States to die in office every 20 years. Starting with William Henry Harrison, every president elected in year that ended with “0” died in office until 1980: Lincoln, Garfield, Mckinley, Harding, Roosevelt, and Kennedy. The curse endeared in the popular consciousness for the accuracy of the prediction that lasted for over a century.

The stability of our presidents is something I think my generation takes for granted. There have only been 4 presidents in my lifetime: George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama. And despite the contentious and sometimes-chaotic nature of their respective administrations, the idea of losing one of them was ever only an afterthought to me. Despite the Monica Lewinsky controversy and the impeachment proceedings of Bill Clinton, I didn’t believe we would ever lose him as president. (Or perhaps I was merely too young to full understand the gravity of the situation.) Despite the terror attacks of 9/11 and increased security nationwide, I never feared that I would wake up and George W. Bush wouldn’t be there, with his cowboy swagger and his “bring it on” attitude. And despite the deep racial unrest that still exists in this country, I almost never feared that Barack Obama would be targeted, and if he was, the Secret Service would be able to handle it and to protect him. (Perhaps that is na├»ve of me given the recent scandals the Secret Service has been mired in.)

I think the way I and many others of my generation relate to our presidents is far different than the way our parents did. Both my parents have talked to me about their experiences living through the assassination of John F. Kennedy as young children. My dad, upon hearing the news, asked my grandma if he could go up to his room and cry, as he had very much admired and looked up to the young president. Both my parents talk about how between the time they entered and then finished college, they had been through 3 different presidential administrations: Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter. Both of my parents became young voters in the immediate aftermath of Watergate, their faith in presidents and politics shaken by that infamous scandal.

So, if our presidents have a certain level of stability because of advances in security and healthcare that didn’t exist is past decades, what does that mean for our country and its future? Well, all it would take is one misguided person with a gun to ruin this streak. Ronald Reagan even came close to being a victim of a crazed gunman after he was shot by John Hinckley in 1981. But, excluding the unthinkable, I think the recent milestone means that we have potentially entered a “golden age” where presidents can leave an impact on history that their predecessors didn’t have the opportunity to. Other presidents in the past may have had administrations that were too short to get much done, be it because of their own personal demises or because they were merely serving the remainder of another president’s term after their death. Now, it feels like practically every post-war president has left behind some major impact on American life, be political, economic, social, etc. There are still things that presidents have to worry about (getting reelected is usually a big crux) but presidents can be more ambitious than their predecessors in the 19th and early 20th centuries were simply because they don’t face the threats, be it illness or violence, that their predecessors have to face.

Much like Queen Elizabeth’s recent longevity milestone did for people in Britain, I think the recent milestone of the longest time without any presidents dying in office should give Americans pause, and fill them with gratitude that it has been the democratic process, not the forces of chaos, that have marked most of the transitions between chief executives in the past 50 years.

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