To help celebrate our twenty-fifth year of being on the information superhighway, we have reached out to some of our favorite former columnists for check-ins and updates. Today’s returning columnist, Chris White, was one of the winners of our first-ever Column Contest in 2009. For Chris White Answers Profound Questions About the Presidents, he posed tough questions about our former leaders and then wrote hilarious (and historically accurate) responses to them. We’re happy to welcome Chris back to the to the site with a brand-new installment.
The next time you’re in South Dakota, whether you’re on a lavish work junket or hiding from creditors, you should get to the Black Hills. Even the dirtiest pinkos can find themselves stirred by Mount Rushmore. It honors American icons—American values, really—on a kick-ass scale, with a geological permanence that can be undone only by the Yellowstone supervolcano or the flaws of 1930s mountain-carving techniques. You’ll want to high-five a bald eagle after seeing it. That would be tough since bald eagles have only four talons per foot. But Rushmore makes you believe in an America where the Steve Jobs of genetic engineering is building a better eagle in his garage. Yes, we can.
You should also check out Rushmore because it’s never going to happen again. Our values might be permanent, but so is Medicare spending; entitlement programs didn’t exist when the feds got involved with the project in the late 1920s, so budget priorities have shifted from mountain-sized sculptures to not letting your grandparents die pill-less in the streets. The private sector doesn’t have much interest (the mountain-sized Crazy Horse monument not far from Rushmore has been “in progress” since 1948), and good luck getting your permits in order without twenty years of lawsuits and environmental reviews.
We couldn’t even pick the presidents for Rushmore 2.0. Sculptor Gutzon Borglum chose the current Fab Four, but a modern-day selection process would be a nightmare of internet voting and interest-group politics. Somehow we’d end up with Ric Flair next to Nancy Reagan. You’d pay to visit that mountain, but it wouldn’t be majestic.
The honors we bestow on presidents always seem to match the times of their bestowal, and the era of Mount Rushmore is gone. For the modern day, we need something fluid and virtual, with a celebration of pop culture and personality mixed in. We need to name a presidential boy band. It’s perfect—membership can change over the years, there’s no cost to the taxpayer, and barring the development of time travel, no one will ever have to listen to their first single, “Apple Pie (Gimme a Slice).”
I call them Article Two, and no one on Mount Rushmore qualifies. That was a tough decision—Washington could dance—but those presidents have their glory. We need five new stars: the quiet guy, the funny guy, the older brother, the young guy, and the bad boy.
Calvin Coolidge, who signed off on Mount Rushmore in the first place, is our quiet guy. First, he was actually quiet—his nickname was “Silent Cal,” and they would sing wordless folksongs about how little he spoke. Second, he was a publicity whore. Silence aside, Coolidge was the press conference champ, holding over five hundred throughout his presidency and saying very little. He wasn’t much for executive power, but he was happy to be photographed while dressed like Cowboy Curtis from Pee-Wee’s Playhouse. (Do an internet search, you’ll enjoy it.) If you can walk that fine line—attracting tons of attention for not doing anything in particular—then you’re a guy who knows how to be in a post-modern boy band.
No one sells youth like a Kennedy. America had a boner for JFK’s athleticism (or at least the illusion since he was a pill-popping hunchback), his hair, and the fact that he wasn’t decrepit. At forty-three, he was the youngest elected president ever. Plus, he might have been addicted to painkillers, which would keep Article Two in the press when the second album doesn’t sell. It’s true that Franklin Pierce was a youthful dude with great hair and a drinking problem, but he didn’t have anything resembling an “it” factor; JFK had moony ideas—such as going to the actual moon and starting the Peace Corps—that the tweens seem to love. So he gets to be our Justin Timberlake. And slotting simplifies casting for the bad boy.
There were lots of arguably scuzzy presidents over the years—guys who had a reputation for chasing tail, got caught, and kept right on chasing it, because it was the right thing to do. Warren Harding, FDR, and LBJ had fickle pickles, not to mention JFK. But nobody did it better than Bill Clinton, because he did it in a semi-modern media environment. The twentieth-century press discreetly ignored lots of presidential dirty laundry up to Watergate, but after that, all bets were off. Everyone knew Clinton had a zipper problem, but he went ahead and had sex with an intern, then tried to lie about it. Why honor Clinton for the economy of the 1990s when it’s so hard to prove that any president is directly responsible for any economy? This way, we get to honor something distinctly Clintonian. The bad boy has to convince the ladies that no matter how hard up they might be, they still have a chance of getting groped in a hotel lobby bathroom shortly after the show. Clinton can do that better than anyone.
Reagan was as good as you’ll get at making people laugh, so he gets to be the funny guy. We need someone comfortable in front of a microphone who can take over a press event to mask the fact that the other band members are semi-literate. Ron was a natural in front of the camera, and he used humor to make himself almost difficult to hate; in one of the most famous alleged quips in presidential history, he told the doctors and nurses treating him after a 1981 assassination attempt that “I hope you’re all Republicans.” There were other funny presidents, but conservatives are dying for a way to honor Reagan, so throw them this bone.
That leaves the older brother, and with Reagan off the table, Eisenhower is the easy choice. The older brother needs a personality that says, “Hey, I’m looking out for these guys, even when our greasy, overweight manager with the suspicious mustache isn’t.” The people driving the minivans to Article Two concerts need the older brother as a stabilizing influence to convince them that their teenage daughters will be in the presence of at least one responsible adult. That’s Eisenhower. If you can plan D-Day, you can get Bill Clinton to a green room on time. He’d hate being in a band with Kennedy—Ike thought his successor was an unprepared dolt—but creative tension is good for the band. At the very least, it can drive JFK off to his solo/acting career.
People won’t take two-week summer vacation car trips to see them perform, and Cary Grant will never dangle from the front of their stage. It’s an empty honor, as frivolous and incoherent as the century it represents. And that’s why some hipster needs to screen-print an official tour T-shirt immediately. Article Two, baby: Prepare to get ratified.