Recently, I was returning from an overseas trip that had a seven-hour layover in Philadelphia. So my colleagues and I took the opportunity to visit one of my favorite landmarks in the entire country, Independence Hall. It’s hard to enter its hallowed halls and not swell with pride.
Yet, this was the first time I entered the building after just returning from a foreign context. And, though it may sound cliche, it gave me a new appreciation for what it means to be American. In the country I had just been in, their culture is marked by some fairly significant divides, particularly as it relates to religion. As I was discussing this difference from American culture, my host remarked, “Yes, but things are different for America. There, people can just show up, declare they’re American, and that’s what they are. Here, your identity is set by your background.”
Those words reverberated in my mind as I looked at the Rising Sun chair once used by George Washington and surveyed the yellowed walls of the space once occupied by James Madison, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson—individuals who would all go on to lead our country. These men, from different backgrounds and areas, came together to forge a new enterprise for individual liberty and human flourishing. All the more remarkable is that this group set in motion the principle that all were free to join in and be part of this unprecedented project (though, some would argue, we’re still on our way to achieving that ambitious goal).
As the Founders were declaring our independence and, some years later, creating the structural documents that created our system of government, they formally created the office of the president to serve in the role of chief executive of the state. This role has grown in both stature and authority from those earliest days of the republic and, because of that growth, it now captures the political imagination for many Americans. Millions of dollars are spent in campaigns to capture the White House. Millions more are spent trying to influence the actual person in the office. Countless news cycles are devoted to following each and every move, pronouncement, and action made by the office. Needless to say, there is a lot that rides on the shoulders of each president.
In recognition of the office, we celebrate the Presidents Day holiday. While many now associate the moment with great deals on furniture and cars, it was originally set aside to mark George Washington’s birthday. After 1971, it was positioned between Washington’s birthday (Feb. 22) and Lincoln’s birthday (Feb. 12), on the third Monday of each February, though now we tend to honor all those who have served as the president of the United States.
Resources to help you appreciate the presidency
For those interested in better understanding the scope of the powers of the office as well as life in the bubble of the presidency, there are a number of helpful resources that I’ve used as both a fan of political history and someone who’s worked in electoral politics.
For readers who want an overview of the office and occupants, a resource I always have by my desk is The American Presidency, a reference book edited by Alan Brinkley and Davis Dyer. This book takes a scholarly look at each president, from their personal history and biography to their achievements in office and historical significance.
For those more interested in high points from presidential history, I would recommend nearly any work by Michael Beschloss, but especially his books Presidential Courage and Presidents at War. Both volumes take pivotal moments, some that are well known and some more obscure, to show how different presidents responded in times of crisis. Sometimes those points of crisis were global, and sometimes it was a crisis of personal confidence. The tales covered often humanize these larger-than-life figures that few books are able to do.
A more recent book I’ve read that opens a window into the family life of presidents is First Dads by Joshua Kendall. As a father myself, it was fascinating to see how various commanders in chief balanced their roles as the leader of the free world and head of household. It will make you realize that, even if you’re the most powerful person in the world, diapers and discipline don’t take care of themselves.
There are other times I am more interested in the cultural impact of the presidency. In The Soul of America, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jon Meacham reviews times of conflict and friction in our nation’s history and how we were able to overcome those moments. In many instances, it was due to a president calling us to our better angels as fellow citizens in this grand American experiment.
With the cultural reach of the presidency, a number of films, shows, and podcasts have centered around the office. Without a doubt, my go-to for binge-watching is “The West Wing,” a top-rated series from the late 90s–mid-2000s that brought together some of the best writing in television history with an incredibly talented team of actors and actresses. Admittedly, it is an idealized look at life in the White House, but it’s been a source of enjoyment for me for years now. More recently, the Economist has debuted a new podcast called “Checks and Balance” that looks at the current presidential campaign. Their reporters who are following the candidates provide a unique look at the state of the race as each week passes.
While there are a number of other resources I could highlight, I consider these to be a good starting point for developing an appreciation for what it takes to be president and lessons learned from those who have served. I hope each of these will provide a small insight into the complex world that our chief executive operates in on a daily basis. As a Christian, they have helped me to be mindful of ways I can be praying for each person who has served in this loftiest, and oftentimes loneliest, of roles (1 Tim. 2).