On Presidents Day, and less than monumental presidents

On Mount Rushmore in South Dakota are carved, from left, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln.
On Mount Rushmore in South Dakota are carved, from left, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln. Associated Press file

The Black Hills of South Dakota are not the nation’s most impressive mountains. Not the largest, not the oldest, not even the blackest. Their name derives from the fact that they are dark from a distance because they’re covered with trees.

Still, were it not for them, we would not have Mount Rushmore. The sheer size and dimension of the sight takes a visitor’s breath away, really: four of America’s most beloved and revered presidents – Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt – carved as busts into the towering backdrop of granite, standing out, literally, in bas relief.

Less well known, of course, is Mount Rushmore’s sculptor. Gutzon Borglum, an Idaho-born son of Danish immigrants, actually has a California connection. He studied at the Mark Hopkins School of Art, now the San Francisco Art Institute, and he is interred in Forest Lawn cemetery in the Southern California suburb of Glendale. Like so many once-celebrated names, his has been dimmed by history.

So it has gone with many of the presidents who failed to merit inclusion in the pantheon Borglum had blasted into the side of a mountain. Some say Mount Rushmore has space for a few more, but imagine the contemporary partisan wrangling. Certainly Democrats would add Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, and Republicans might choose Dwight D. Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan. But what of Harry Truman and William McKinley? We’ll stay out of that one for now.

Consider the noncontenders, those whom history will recall with less monumental kindness. The James Buchanans. The Warren G. Hardings. The U.S. Grants.

Instead, consider the utter noncontenders, those whom history will recall with less monumental kindness. Some mediocrities – Benjamin Harrison, John Tyler – are not shunned, exactly, and have their own national historical sites. But whither the worst? They get no mountaintop bust, no lionization, other than a generic Presidents Day inclusion among all presidents.

Their sole notable accomplishment is having gotten historians to agree on their worst-ness. In this alt-fact, reality-show America, that isn’t easy. For example, most historians agree that the presidency of James Buchanan (1857-61) was an absolute catastrophe that led to the Civil War. But it also led to the presidency of Abraham Lincoln, who every scholar of note would agree was among our nation’s greatest presidents.

What about the lazy President Warren G. Harding (1921-23), who governed over the massive Teapot Dome oil scandal? Or President U.S. Grant (1869-1877), the beloved hero of the Union forces whose administration was forever tarnished by the Crédit Mobilier disaster, in which practically every Gilded Age pol from the vice president on down took bribes to grease the transcontinental railroad?

President George W. Bush? Looking better these days, isn’t he, people? The New Bush is the guy who didn’t want to discriminate against Muslims after 9/11, moved significant AIDS relief to Africa, and seems astonishingly articulate in retrospect. Downside? Iraq remains a heartbreaking, seemingly irreparable mess.

President Richard Nixon? He simultaneously looks better and worse in retrospect. He made masterful geopolitical plays and forward-looking domestic policy (he proposed national health care of sorts and created the Environmental Protection Agency). But there were those tapes. And Watergate.

And then, some presidents are Teflon. JFK’s charisma is forever, despite his sexual involvement with, well, a lot of women. President Bill Clinton was impeached in 1999. You’d hardly know it today given his enduring popularity among some Americans, although others remain convinced he is a criminal.

All of which is to say that, for all of this nation’s great leaders, it is worth remembering that failure is an option. It happens, even to presidents. There in the space that is not Mount Rushmore, history reminds that leaders are not necessarily granite. They are as human as we, the people behind them, strong and weak, good and wicked, light and sometimes darkly complex.