L. Neil Smith's
Number 307, February 20, 2005

Happy 90th Birthday, Dad!

Remember President's Day
by Jonathan David Morris

Special to TLE

The best American presidents are the ones whose names you can never remember—like Rutherford Hayes, Millard Fillmore, and that other guy.

Any president whose name "rings a bell" was probably a pretty good president.

Now, ordinarily, these aren't the people you'd associate with a serious discussion on America's all-time best. No, of course not. Because any serious discussion on America's all-time best will inevitably turn to the two guys we lionize on President's Day — George Washington and Abraham Lincoln—as well as a couple of other presidents who Americans have actually heard of. Someone will always toss in FDR, for instance. His Cousin Teddy, too. And the occasional rabble-rouser will, of course, suggest Jefferson just for good measure. Why not? These are the presidents whose names we remember. They _must've_been_ good.

But meanwhile, some guys are perpetually out of contention. No one will ever tell you Franklin Pierce was the best American president. And, likewise, nobody gives the nod to John Taylor and Zachary Tyler. Or was it John Tyler and Zachary Taylor? Whatever. Same difference. You get the drift.

The way I figure, the reason these names never come to mind is because the actual humans they're attached to didn't do anything worth remembering. Take Chester Arthur. What did he do? I'm sure he did something. I'm sure I even knew what that something was at one point in my life. But I forget now. And how about James Garfield? When was he president? Did I fall asleep? I must've missed it. Wake me when he comes back around.

Now, I suppose I could always google these presidents to learn more about them. And if I were comfortable with using "google" as a verb, I would probably do that. But I'm not. So I won't. Besides, I don't want to learn more about these presidents anyway. What am I going to do with that information? Write it down on a Post-It Note and stick it to my corkboard? Call my friends and family to share the good word? Teachers tried drilling this stuff into my head every single day for nearly 20 years. If I didn't remember it the first time (or second time, or third time), it probably wasn't worth remembering.

Or maybe it was. I don't know. I can't remember.

I guess what I'm trying to say here is, the fact that I can't recall what James Polk accomplished is, itself, his greatest accomplishment. That's why I don't want to know more about him. I don't want to ruin his reputation. Same goes for Grover Cleveland. Here's a guy who waltzed in and out of D.C. without doing a single thing I can remember off the top of my head. In fact, the only thing I know is that he did nothing twice—in two, non-consecutive terms. If you ask me, that makes him twice as good. Why sully his name by learning more?

Take a look at a list of presidents. You wouldn't invite most of these guys into your home. Franklin Roosevelt? Marxist. Jack Kennedy? Womanizer. Richard Nixon? Crook. The list goes on. Ulysses Grant ran up bar tabs. Ronald Reagan had Iran-Contra. Gerald Ford kept falling down. Then there's LBJ, who cursed like a kid on the playground. And let's not forget the tax-hiking ventriloquist, George Bush. "Read my lips," he said. Bill Clinton, from what I understand, said the same thing. Shall I go on?

Even our most cherished presidents weren't perfect. We all know Washington did good things in office. He set the standard for stepping down after two terms. But the same guy who led troops against the British was also the only sitting president to lead troops against Americans. Can you imagine if George W. Bush jumped on a horse and rode into western Pennsylvania to collect whiskey taxes? We wouldn't be happy about that. At least I know I wouldn't. I like whiskey. And I hate taxes. Yet Washington did this in 1794, and today we hold furniture sales on his birthday. What's up with that?

The point is, presidents seem to leave the White House like rock stars leave hotel rooms—with bed sheets strewn from the ceiling fan, and broken stuff all over the floor. The presidents whose names we can never remember hold a distinct advantage: We have no clue what they did—good, bad, or whatever. I've got to believe this means they broke less stuff. And in my opinion, that should be the president's only job description: "Here. Hold onto our country for a few years. And don't break it. Thanks."

So, for my money, the best American president was William Henry Harrison, who stayed in office for about an afternoon—then rode gently into that good night. Finally, here was a leader who cared. That's who I'll celebrate this President's Day.

Well, provided I don't forget.

Jonathan David Morris writes a weekly column for The Aquarian and other publications. His website is www.readjdm.com, and he can be reached at jdm@readjdm.com.


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