Thomas Cronin, currently the McHugh Professor of American Institutions and Leadership at Colorado College, wrote an essay nearly 40 years ago entitled “Superman: Our Textbook President.” He had studied college political science textbooks for the previous 15 years and found a trend in the discussion of the U.S. presidency, “by symbolizing the past and future greatness of America and radiating inspirational confidence, a president can pull the nation together while directing us toward the fulfillment of the American dream.”
It was an era when the idea of an energetic executive was transcendent in America. Eisenhower was old and irrelevant, so the thinking went, and John F. Kennedy came along promising a robust exploration and occupation of the future. He said things like: “a chief executive who is praised primarily for what he did not do, the disasters he prevented, the bills he vetoed,” would simply not be enough for the big-bad challenges of the future.
Too bad for those who really liked Ike. Or Nixon.
I was a school kid growing up at the time, and I recall being very inspired by President Kennedy. In fact, my father used JFK’s love for history to get me similarly interested. Yep, while most others heeded Camelot’s clarion call about a compelling future, the president helped to get me interested in the past. I love irony.
My first history books were gifts given at the A&P store in Taylor, Michigan. Dad only had to continue buying flowery drinking glasses to build my fledgling library. Mom got the glasses for the cupboards and I got the books. President Kennedy wrote the “Forward” to them. I was hooked.
The image of the presidency is very powerful, especially to kids. And because it is so potent, it should be used with great care – to inspire and encourage things all of us can agree on: stay in school, eat your veggies, don’t eat the paste, and respect the flag. Mr. Kennedy even went so far as to promote physical fitness standards. It was all very patriotic. And I cannot remember my parents, both loyal Nixon-Republicans, being all that put out about it.
But that was then.
It was a different time in our nation. Maybe there are too many naïve people, but in those days even small-government conservatives got in long lines on weekends for vaccinations, or “sugar cubes” to promote the eradication of certain diseases. We were sheep and Ozzie and Harriet were on the tube.