What dead American presidents reveal “about ourselves, our history, and how we imagine our past and future.”
In his spirited debut book, Carlson, host of NPR’s Weekend Edition for New Hampshire Public Radio, looks at the curious ways that presidents have been commemorated—by buildings and tombs, statues and libraries, and even bars and gift shops. Some presidents (George Washington and Calvin Coolidge, for example) resisted being celebrated. “It is a great advantage to a President,” Coolidge wrote in his autobiography, “and a major source of safety to the country, for him to know he is not a great man.” Not all were so modest. John Tyler was “the first presidential pariah…and the first president the House considered impeaching”; yet he longed to be remembered as a great man, appointing a literary executor to review and eventually publish his papers. Franklin Roosevelt was the first president to establish his own library, setting a model for every successor. Besides millions of documents, letters, and government papers, the library contains his stamp collection and a papier-mâché Sphinx made to lampoon him when he refused to reveal if he would run for a third term. In the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library and Museum, a life-size robotic version of Johnson “stands behind a podium…and cracks jokes.” Along his exuberant journey, Carlson found whole cities devoted to presidential celebration: in Buffalo, which claims connections to Grover Cleveland, William McKinley, and Teddy Roosevelt, a downtown pub is called Founding Fathers, where patrons can order a “Hail to the Chef!” sandwich. Rapid City, South Dakota, near Mount Rushmore, calling itself “the most patriotic city in America,” features a complete set of life-size presidential statues. Mount Rushmore itself, the enthusiastic author learned, “was designed not to be an icon of American identity but…a tourist trap” meant to draw visitors to the Black Hills.
A brisk, lighthearted travelogue with an exuberant guide.