The Impossible Job

The First Ladies are to be joined by their husbands, and it's about time. For many decades, the Smithsonian has had an exhibition honoring the Presidential wives, but there's been nothing of comparable scale to recognize their industrious spouses, an odd omission indeed. Soon after Election Day, we'll make amends when the National Museum of American History opens a new permanent exhibition entitled "The American Presidency: A Glorious Burden."

The subtitle recalls Thomas Jefferson’s 1797 take on the Presidency as a "splendid misery." Jefferson had not yet become the third person to hold the office, and yet the nature of the job was already clear to him. In fact, George Washington himself, in the very first Presidential inaugural address, had guessed what lay ahead. He spoke of "the magnitude and difficulty of the trust," which made him all the more conscious of his own deficiencies. His modesty was characteristic, though modesty, in his case, was unnecessary. But he was right to hesitate before the imagined rigors of the office, for it makes demands that are plainly unreasonable.

Jefferson was not the only one of Washington's successors to echo his sentiments. John Quincy Adams, for example, could "scarcely conceive a more harassing, wearying, teasing condition of existence" than the Presidency. Andrew Jackson called the office "dignified slavery," and Warren Harding complained: "It's Hell! No other word to describe it." Woodrow Wilson, some years before trying it himself, put it this way: "Men of ordinary physique and discretion cannot be President and live."

The American Presidency is a position for which no training can be adequate, no preparation complete, no counsel sufficient. It is an office that outstrips anyone’s ability to negotiate the ever-widening circle of its responsibilities. The Presidency asks mere human beings to do a job that, by all reasonable calculation, should be beyond human capacity. And yet it is a job individuals avidly seek, and one at which some have even excelled.

We ask an astonishing amount of our Presidents. We have expected them to be father, brother, general, diplomat, arbitrator, economist, pitchman, publicist, cheerleader and a dozen things more. We take for granted that the same person who has the qualities to command armies and deploy an arsenal of awful force will also be available to end a school year or launch a baseball season, to lead our common celebrations and shoulder our common griefs. And, with all that, we expect our Presidents to submit to the nonstop second-guessing that's the lifeblood of the democratic process.

When we mined the riches of the Smithsonian's collections to portray the nature of the Presidency, we were determined to show the office as at once incomparably grand and irreducibly human. Happily, the collections are filled with objects that reflect the humanity of our Presidents, objects they used and moved among and that furnished their eras. So though the new exhibition considers the office and the men who have held it from many perspectives — historical, political, cultural, social — it puts an especially welcome emphasis on the human dimension.

That's as it should be. For, in the end, Presidents must fall back on their own humanity and their imperfect knowledge to make decisions on which the fortunes of the world may turn. It's then that character — sure instincts, a steady inner moral compass, a capacity for prudent risk, a predisposition to courage and compassion — will tell. Perhaps our successful Presidents had intellect on their side (or to their side, in the ranks of advisers), and surely they had luck, but above all they had character to get them through the urgent hours.

The new exhibition will make plain our impossible expectations of the office of the Presidency, invite us to admire the individuals who, against all odds, met the expectations, and persuade us perhaps to look more kindly on those who fell short.