Profound Questions: What Should I Get the President for Christmas?
Originally published December 2, 2009
Back in 2009, McSweeneys.net started a competition searching for "columnists." I was among the first batch of winners. "Chris White Answers Profound Questions About the Presidents" ran for a year, with a few additional installments added afterward.
The holidays are upon us, like locusts on our bumper crops of warmth and prosperity. We trade in joy and togetherness as another winter nears. And yet amid this revelry there is the eternal conundrum -- the question that, even when answered, rises from the ashes of the Yule log each year:
What do you get the man who has the power to unleash nuclear death on the entire globe (i.e., everything)?
Sometimes we love the president, and sometimes we stand outside his house yelling about the Fed through a bullhorn, even though he's in Europe at that time, because our public gathering permit for Lafayette Park was obtained months ago. But rain or shine he's always our president, and the holidays are the perfect time to let that special guy know that you actually care.
That means no gift cards.
It also means nothing too expensive. That seems strange, since we're talking about a guy with a six-figure salary and a free mansion in a city where buying love is a growth industry. But if you're foreign, anything fancy you give the president by law becomes government property -- for all you know, the fertility idol sacred to your culture is being used to grind coffee beans at the State Department kitchenette. If you're American, he's going to have to do some paperwork to prove you aren't bribing him. A gift of paperwork, sir, is no gift at all.
Even if the president could keep an expensive gift, you can't compete with the big boys. Woodrow Wilson had a short retirement at his Washington, D.C., home, but he spent it surrounded by the truly awesome White House swag now on display (gift laws were looser back then). Whatever you have engraved at Things Remembered won't hold up next to a mosaic of St. Peter, given by the Pope. Not even if you spring for the flask! Plus, fancy is impersonal. Eisenhower's Gettysburg ranch has all the regal gifts shoved into one parlor. It was Ike's least-favorite room, as he found it too stuffy and formal; instead, he spent his time on the back porch, where the decorations were the television, pictures of the family, and Hitler's head (allegedly). Simple pleasures are what matter. Expensive is out.
And so is the obvious. Treat gift-giving like joking with a waiter: if you didn't have to think about it, thousands before you made the same joke. Your attempt at levity has crushed a piece of the waiter's soul as he tries to force a smile. The president can't spit in your club sandwich, but really, how is a 500th "Big Stick" going to satisfy a Theodore Roosevelt?
Obvious gifts can even be done to death. In New York's Riverside Park they tell the events leading to Grant's tomb: A photographer captured the general on the battlefield with a stogie, though Grant wasn't much of a smoker. When the photo hit the newspapers, gift-givers bombarded the hero with boxes of cigars. He decided not to waste them, smoked at a furious pace throughout his presidency and died of throat cancer. Thoughtless media-driven gifts killed our 18th president, and if research can link jellybeans to Alzheimer's, that pretty much confirms the liberal media plot against Republicans. But regardless, obvious gifts are out.
What you want is to find the intersection of personal and practical -- those are the gifts that stand out, especially now that The Sharper Image has closed. For example, one of Washington's prized possessions, proudly displayed at Mount Vernon, was a key to the Bastille given by the Marquis de Lafayette. Personal, symbolic, and wall-mountable -- the perfect gift. But don't despair if you aren't friends with the president and you don't have historic French antiques around the house. There's something personal you can provide that every president can use: relaxation.
Being president means constant stress, whether it's from the Soviets, the economy or a parade of mistresses. With so little time for himself, what president wouldn't appreciate a little recreational assistance?
Help out a collector! Van Buren, Hayes or Garfield would have loved a distinctive walking cane. Jefferson bent over backwards for books. Harding had a thing for ugly elephant statues just a notch above Hummel figurines.
Indulge a hobby! In his later years, Franklin Pierce would have loved a case of beer. Ike needed painting supplies. Or judging from Sagamore Hill, there would have been no greater gift to Theodore Roosevelt than letting him hunt you for sport.
Spruce up the workplace! At Hyde Park, you can see that one of the wealthiest and greatest leaders of the 20th century had a lot of kitschy crap on his desk. Somber decisions on human governance were probably made in the presence of a ceramic rooster, and who knows -- maybe the smiles generated by that silly, tacky little rooster gave FDR the strength to push for financially crippling entitlement programs. Your corny, $10 sombrero ashtray from South of the Border might result in universal health care.
Ease the tension in the president's life. It's the best gift you can give, not just to the president, but to your countrymen. And in these tough financial times, it needn't cost more than a stamp. A hand-made coupon for one free backrub, redeemable with any American, should do the trick. If the president redeems it with you, you'll have a great story; or if he can't get the First Lady or Secret Service to play along, at least he'll know there's a citizen out there who cares.
But no matter what you give, rest assured: Even if he hates it, if he's a good politician, the president will smile like it's exactly what he wanted. Just like your parents do every year.
Please disregard all this advice if you have the location of any major terrorists or a sure-fire idea for generating 40 million jobs. Those are great gifts, too.