Profound Questions: Why Care?
Originally published August 4, 2010
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.
Five bobbleheads sit on the desk where profound questions are answered. One is Steve Carlton, because the Phillies are awesome. The others are presidents -- a philosophical Mount Rushmore, in an earthquake.
Jefferson represents ideas: the romantic notion that philosophy can transcend politics. It's crap, as Jefferson himself would stab people in the back as needed. But one word choice -- the pursuit of happiness -- colors 90 percent of what we fight about today. If you're going to get misty-eyed and talk about the truth of the human condition (Saturday night at the White household) you need Jefferson.
Theodore Roosevelt is for energy: a man so active that it's exhausting just to read his biography. The "strenuous life," more than old money or a coherent worldview, is what made TR great; he overwhelmed people, like a hungry walrus that could also shake hands. When you're slothfully checking Facebook for the fifth time in an hour, it helps to catch Teddy's disapproving eye.
FDR stands in (the bobblehead has no wheelchair) for the consequences of government: we're not just shuffling dollars around. Making "fairness" and stability into federal jobs has altered how families are structured and how communities grow. If you have a giant lever and a few generations, you can remodel entire societies, down to the core.
And anchoring the mountain, nodding vigorously every time the air conditioner kicks on, is the No. 1 seller of the New Hampshire Historical Society: Franklin Pierce. He represents the fact that you should care about Franklin Pierce.
There was a time when people cared deeply; specifically, April 16, 1865. It had been a rough week for Abraham Lincoln, what with being shot in the head, and it was about to get rough for Franklin. He already had a bad rep around Concord. He hadn't done much to settle that slavery thing as president, he had sympathized with the Confederacy, and he was a known pen pal of his former War secretary, Jefferson Davis. Even if you're just exchanging chili recipes with the guy, that's bad PR.
So when a grief-stricken mob saw no American flag honoring Lincoln on Franklin's house, they decided he hadn't lived freely enough, and they asked him outside to talk about the second part of the state motto. He spoke to them. The words are lost to history, but not even John Hughes could write such an awesome speech: an indignant Pierce not only dispersed the crowd, but somehow got them to cheer his patriotism on the way out. It was the high water mark of Pierce passion. And after that, he probably shuffled inside for a drink, alone in the home where he would die of cirrhosis a few years later.
That building burned down a ways back, and all that remains (as of last summer) is a front step. Everything else is gravel, weeds and broken glass. As you stand in the lot, the only view is the Tempur-Pedic banner on the mattress store next door -- the bizarre logo of a woman sleeping on her side, naked, with a defined butt. No historical marker distracts you from that vaguely European ad campaign. Schools hardly mess with him, and no one is revising their Pierce screenplay. Which is to say, we forget Franklin.
It's partly his fault for being forgettable. He came from good stock -- his dad was a Revolutionary War hero, governor of New Hampshire and a bar owner -- but he wasn't a brilliant lawyer, representative or senator. He married the daughter of his college president, but not in a hot "Animal House" sense; she was a withdrawn, ultra-religious scold who didn't want him in politics. When he signed up for war with Mexico, he was best known for falling off his horse, twice.
But it's partly fate's fault for kicking his teeth in. Pierce rounded out the family plot in 1869. Two children were lost early on (3 days and 4 years). Jane made it to 1863. And Bennie ... Having won the presidency and waiting for the inauguration, in January 1853 the Pierces attended a funeral in Boston. On the train ride home, a freak derailing twisted their car, killing Bennie in front of his unharmed parents. Some accounts say he was "crushed," but at the Pierce Homestead in Hillsborough (i.e., his dad's bar) they get more graphic: Franklin rushed over to attend to his 11-year-old son, scooped up his body, and noticed it was missing about a foot off the top. And then, after some soul-searching, Jane decided that God was either punishing Franklin's ambition, or freeing him of all distractions. So anyhow, have fun running the country!
Study the man, and he transforms. The insignificant failure fades, and an endearingly human figure -- the love child of sadness and dashed expectations -- takes shape. And you have to love that ugly baby.
Most of history is people mired in mediocrity or tragedy -- those who tried to live up to a father's example, or couldn't control their drinking, or were paralyzed by grief. Most of history is people who were products of their time -- Franklin was nobody's first choice in 1852, but he fit a profile Democrats wanted: young Northern guy who tolerated slavery, had decent hair and could claim some military experience. He was bland by design. (Plus the name "Pierce" allowed for campaign knives, and if poll workers are sporting machetes, that's good for a few votes.) Was he wrong to reach for the brass ring? Wouldn't you?
It's easy to care about a Lincoln or a Washington -- they give us so many mattress sales. But greatness is a relative condition. There is no Lincoln without Pierce, and when you ignore those who failed, you miss out on the humanity of the past. You miss out on the reassuringly universal stories that will play out again in our future.
So Franklin Pierce sits on my desk as a reminder that every president is, above all, a person. They are men whose virtues and faults have been elevated to the status of public property. None ever transcended the problems and joys of everyday life, and none ever will. You can adore or hate them as you choose, but they all deserve our admiration, and curiosity, and thanks. Their stories are our stories.
And maybe it's the air conditioner, but Steve, Tom, Teddy and the two Franklins are nodding in agreement.