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The Meaning of the American Presidency: An Elephant to the Rescue

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

This extraordinary presidential campaign has generated so much news and attention that even children are wondering what is happening.

Trying to explain to young people the importance of the presidency and its vital role in our lives can be challenging.


That is one reason why Ellis the Elephant, our favorite history-loving pachyderm, has discovered America’s greatest presidents in his newest adventure, Hail to the Chief.

Presidential campaigns are a great time to introduce young Americans to a more patriotic understanding of America and its great tradition of freedom, self-government, and the rule of law.

Our presidential history reminds us that there’s no single resume or personality that qualifies someone to be commander-in-chief. Instead, our best leaders have fit the roles Americans believed they needed their president to play at the time.

In Hail to the Chief, Ellis begins with our very first president. George Washington was a giant in American life--the commanding general of the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War, a man of integrity and virtue, and one of the wealthiest men in the nation.

Abraham Lincoln, in contrast, was born in a log cabin, and prior to becoming president, was a self-taught prairie lawyer and a single-term Congressman.

Ronald Reagan was a radio sportscaster and an actor in TV movies before he became governor of California and then one of our country’s most successful presidents.

So for voters struggling to picture an outsider in the White House, or parents trying to explain this extraordinary election to their children, Ellis offers a useful lesson. Throughout our history, Americans have chosen some exceptional leaders--tough and energetic figures who have inspired the nation. We have also selected some unlikely presidents, who offered the country unique leadership when it was urgently needed.


In Hail to the Chief, Ellis discovers one such example in Andrew Jackson, who rose from humble beginnings to rock the political establishment in Washington, D.C. with his populist campaign for president. Jackson was a tough, blunt, and strong-willed leader with no political background who came to office promising to shake things up. Indeed, some adults might find themselves drawing comparisons to Donald Trump’s campaign today.

As our country prepares to choose it’s 45th president, history, like the tale of Jackson’s raucous inaugural party, is a good way to help young and old alike understand that we have chosen many different kinds of leaders for the job, each with unique strengths and weaknesses. But each has made important contributions to our nation.

Unfortunately, we have some real work to do when it comes to passing this history on to the next generation of Americans.

The results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress show that students score worse in American history than in any other subject--at every grade level and often overwhelmingly so. Just 20 percent of fourth-graders, 18 percent of eighth-graders and 12 percent of twelfth-graders are at grade-level proficiency in American history.

This election is a perfect occasion for each of us to begin repairing this lack of knowledge about our presidential past with the young people in our own lives. Hail to the Chief is an excellent starting place, since it highlights the stories of some of our greatest presidents. But adults looking to inspire an interest in presidential history also have a wealth of opportunities in our presidential homes and museums, from the extraordinary Mount Vernon in Virginia to the wonderful Reagan Library in California.


By helping to share the stories of America’s presidents with the young people in your life, you might spark some interesting conversations about the present, as well as a passion for learning about our past.

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