Whether one likes a given president or not, we are taught to respect the office. It is particularly so when we don’t like a president. After all, it is easy to respect the office when you like the current office holder. But what about when you don’t like or respect a given president?
I have about 120 books in my own personal library about American presidents. Most are biographies, though some are collections of letters and speeches. Over half of them are about Abraham Lincoln, my favorite president. I haven’t read all these presidential books, but I have read many and continue to read them. I also check out presidential books, both written and in audio (for driving time), from my local library. In the past six months, I have read a book comparing the presidencies of Lincoln, both Roosevelts, and Lyndon Johnson, a major biography of George H. W. Bush, and another biography of John and Abigail Adams (the first political power couple in our country). I just finished a new book entitled “Lincoln’s Last Trial,” about the last case Lincoln the Springfield lawyer tried in 1859 before becoming president. My presidential library includes both Republicans and Democrats. I like to read about our presidents—I am fascinated by the office of the presidency.
I say all this to indicate that I respect the office of the president of the United States. I have taken the public tour of the White House several times. I have visited over a dozen presidential homes and libraries and I keep a list of those I haven’t yet visited. I watch the “American Experience” biographies of our presidents on PBS. I watch movies that deal with our presidents. I respect the office—I am fascinated by the office of the presidency. On a recent trip to Washington, D. C., I spent over an hour at the National Portrait Gallery looking at every portrait of our American presidents hanging there, and reading the brief biographies of each one. If I am anywhere near Air Force One, I try to get close to it—I have twice.
I am deeply distressed when a president shows me no sign of respecting that office. This is not a matter of partisan preferences. For example, I didn’t vote for George W. Bush either time he ran (though I did vote for his father), and I think he made some serious misjudgments as president. But I never for a moment found him disrespectful of the office. To the contrary, I saw him doing his best to honor the office. When Reagan was president, so great was his respect for the office, that he never entered the oval office without a tie and suit coat on. While I can quibble that a president can be at the resolute desk with coat off, sleeves rolled up, and no tie on while still respecting the office, I am moved by Reagan’s sense of reverence for the office of the presidency and the oval room itself.
In terms of respecting the office of the presidency, I look for qualities like these in a president:
- honesty, but with discretion in knowing when the whole truth cannot be told;
- willingness to admit mistakes and learn from them;
- civil speech;
- familiarity with and respect for the Constitution, with an appreciative understanding of the balanced and distinct roles of our three branches of government;
- respect (if not always fondness) for the press;
- respect for our global allies, along with a willingness to befriend and negotiate with our global adversaries in the pursuit of peace and justice;
- honoring the traditions that have developed around the office over two centuries, while not being rigidly bound by them.
Because I respect the office of the president of the United States, I am pleased with presidents that respect the office (even if I disagree with their policies), and I am displeased with any that do not show respect for the office.