Photo of Gerald R. Ford courtesy of MSNBC
I was saddened to see that former President Gerald Ford died this week, as I view him as a decent sort of person who seemed to be just the right man to calm the ship of state after the tumultuous Nixon years. I disagreed with his decision to pardon his predecessor, but on the whole I think his short term in office was beneficial to the United States.
Yet I am once again puzzled by the outpouring of adoration that borders on a form of worship for the politicians who become American presidents. Even the disgraced Richard Nixon received a hero's sendoff when he died in 1994, and we as Americans continue to exhibit a tendency to deify (or at least beatify) our leaders.
Photo of US flag at half-staff courtesy of ABC News
I must admit that, as a historian whose inclination is towards social history and a person who frequently demonstrates an iconoclastic attitude toward elites and celebrities, I am apt to dismiss all forms of hero-worship. Still, one might make a strong case that the American fixation on the lives of its presidents and ex-presidents borders on a form of monarchophilia.
We build museums, memorials, and libraries as shrines to our ex-presidents, even for those with very short periods in office. The inauguration of a president has become a weeklong series of events that more resembles a coronation than a welcoming into elected office.
I do not wish to take away from those who mourn the passing of Gerald Ford as a decent man and a calming presence in a time of turmoil. Most presidents, however, have little long-term effect on the world and the lives of everyday people, and those we think of as particularly noteworthy simply happened to be in the right place at the right time, riding existing social, political, or economic waves like a surfer hanging ten through a tube on the Banzai Pipeline.