February 15, 2016
The Imprint “Dead Presidents” Have Left On The Country And This Region
It’s President’s Day. For many, the meaning of this holiday boils down to a day off or prime time for a good deal on a new car or mattress. But what do our departed presidents mean to us and how do we remember them after they’re gone?
A similar, but simpler, question intrigued Brady Carlson, a reporter and host of Weekend Edition for New Hampshire Public Radio. Since his early elementary years he’s been fascinated by our presidents and he opens his new book “Dead Presidents: An American Adventure into the Strange Deaths and Surprising Afterlives of our Nation’s Leaders” by asking “What is the job of a dead president?”
The answer – as with so many things – is that it depends. I connected with Carlson by phone to talk about some of the connections that former leaders of the nation have to this region ahead of the holiday.
Let’s start at the very beginning, as you do in the book, with George Washington. Visiting his tomb at Mount Vernon it’s easy to be struck by how simple it is. What stands out to you about the decision he made to be buried there and the simplicity of the inscription on his tomb?
It speaks to his vision of what the presidency was supposed to be like. It was for a citizen in the country to serve in a public, powerful role and then relinquish that power and return to being a citizen. Washington made it clear in his will that he wanted to return to being a private citizen and that, if he couldn’t quite do that in life, he wanted to in death.
He was cognizant of the idea that he wouldn’t always be left alone, but might still be surprised to learn that Mount Vernon has something like 80 million visitors over the course of a year. And that they’ve included his presidential successors, leaders like Queen Elizabeth from other nations and people from all over America and the world, really.
Being president has always been about that balance, and that raises a question of: How much do you belong to the country even after your term is up? And the answer is that even after your term and even after you pass away, you still belong to the country.
Most Americans are familiar with the Washington Monument, which stands tall on the National Mall, but another tribute preceded it. It was an over-sized statue*, carved by Horatio Greenough, of Washington clad in a toga that was roundly panned and ousted from its intended spot in the Capitol Rotunda. What went wrong with there and what does it tell us about the evolution of our remembrance of presidents?
Back then, president was a more distant office, apart from the people. I live in New Hampshire so we’re used to seeing people who want to be president often. But at the founding of the nation, that was a more unusual experience, so we see this statue [of George Washington in a toga] and Mount Rushmore with heads that are twelve times life size early on.
Over time, our relationship with presidents has changed – we’re closer to them through advances in transportation and mass media. We’re more comfortable with the idea that they’re flawed and human. They’re still important and we expect more of them, but the relationship is different. So you won’t find many people these days putting presidents in togas in statues.
Now when we see statues, they’re more life-sized and life-like. Best example is Rapid City, S.D., where there are life-size statues of each president on many of the street corners. They’re dressed in casual attire and doing, often, normal things. That’s where we are now.
*Washingtonians, if you’d like to see this statue for yourself, it eventually found a home in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.
How did the Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond come to be the final resting place of two presidents?
This is one of the most fascinating stories I found. Because, one, neither president buried there intended to be. And two, if it had been up to the governor at the time there would be more presidents buried on the hilltop known as President’s Circle.
The first, James Monroe, died while living with his daughter’s family in New York and was originally buried there. But in the run up to the Civil War the people of the south decided that was unbearable so he was exhumed and brought to Virginia for reburial.
Then during the war Tyler was the only former president who engaged in open rebellion against the government he once lead. By the time he died the civil war had not yet ended and the country was in no mood to honor a president who became a confederate. So the plan B that was developed was to put him next to James Monroe in Richmond.
The governor of Virginia at the time, Henry Wise, had a vision of having all the three Virginia presidents up to that point buried there. And while it’s not known if he reached out to Madison, he did ask the family of Jefferson still living at Monticello if they’d be interested in moving him. And in reply got a terse letter to the effect of “thanks but no thanks.”
Thomas Jefferson’s grave marker might be notable for what it omits. Why did he opt to leave ‘president’ off even as he selected other achievements to highlight for posterity?
It’s so interesting – I think the question says more about what we think of the presidency than what Jefferson did. He clearly wanted to be president and was ambitious, and he clearly thought a lot about who he was and how he wanted to be remembered. Today, it’s actually an easier task with each president getting a federally funded library as part of their legacy.
Jefferson, at the end of his life, wanted to highlight the ideas that were most important to him. The entry on his gravestone that baffles people is “Father of the University of Virginia.” He worried that Virginia was falling behind – even putting the questions about the morality of slavery aside – it didn’t work anymore when he was nearing the end of his life. He worried it was becoming less educated and wasn’t capable any longer of producing statesmen like those that came out of his generation. Still a young nation, we needed a world-class university and that was kind of his parting gift to the commonwealth of Virginia. To found this university that could steer things in the right direction. And that, to him, was more important than the presidency had been.
It sounds like he was thinking a bit ahead in planning his grave site. And you note that one many in this region will be familiar with, President Kennedy’s at Arlington National Cemetery which features an eternal flame, “…aims for the future.” What was most striking to you about the choice of that memorial and the kind of thinking that went into selecting it?
The history behind the eternal flame and, really, the entire Kennedy funeral is fascinating. It all happened so fast, it’s not like they were executing a well-documented funeral plan that had been put in place, which we typically see today. Instead, they based plans off Abraham Lincoln’s services, which was not necessarily the obvious immediate choice at the time.
A lot of people might have thought, at the time, that “Here’s a guy just getting started with his presidency, are we so bereaved we’ll compare these two men as historic figures?” As it turns out, we were and do. Any talk of that nature quickly went away and people really wanted what Jacqueline Kennedy and the administration put together. They believed in the narrative of him as a great figure and the idea that there will never be another like him.
When it comes to the flame itself, no other president has anything like that – this one grave site says, through that feature, the ideas he put forward will never be duplicated and equaled. It consciously recalls something JFK once said: “A man may die, nations may rise and fall, but an idea lives on.”
That said, it also illustrates a theme throughout the book – none of these sites are quite what they seem – even the eternal flame is not. It’s not the original. It has gone out and it has been replaced.
As you traveled around this region, did anything that you saw really surprise you?
One thing that stood out is that there are unusual connections you sometimes find made at these grave sites and a lot of more traditional remembrances. You expect historic sites and statues. But to go to D.C.’s Washington National Cathedral where you have Wilson’s tomb and it’s not all that far away from the gargoyle of Darth Vader.
It’s funny to think of the man who fought “the war to end all wars” and Star Wars together in one place. But it’s so American, how we remember these folks. It can be lovingly irreverent even as we revere them.
Can’t get enough information about how we honor presidents past? Check out the audio of WAMU’s own Martin DiCaro in conversation with John Steele Gordon, author of “Washington’s Monument: And the Fascinating History of the Obelisk’ at Kramerbooks. We’ll be back at the store soon for more events, including one with Kojo himself on February 23. See you there!