A man for all presidents

David came in the door last night brandishing two large books. "Keep cool with Coolidge," he said, and headed for his favorite armchair. There probably aren't too many people who rush home from work in order to get started on not just one, but two biographies of Calvin Coolidge. Let's face it, Coolidge may have been cool in his day, but nobody thinks he is now.

Except David.

Eighteen years ago, after a trip to Mount Vernon, Va., David became interested in the presidents of the United States. We spent an afternoon walking around George Washington's home, feeling faintly ashamed that our knowledge about the father of our country was so limited. We knew he had false teeth made of wood and a birthday in February. Lots of places are named after him, and he shows up on money, always recognizable because of his odd, mushroom-shaped hairdo. That was about it. After the Mount Vernon tour, I felt sufficiently well-informed, but David was just getting started. He went home, found a good biography of President Washington, and read every word.

There was no stopping him after that.

The one-volume biography of Washington led to a two-volume biography of John Adams, our second president, then six volumes about Thomas Jefferson. Not all the presidents have that much written about them, but David reads whatever there is.

And he reads the books in order. Once he accidentally read a biography of Ulysses S. Grant before it was Grant's turn. The book became available, and David gave in to temptation. But he has learned better and always proceeds chronologically now. That is because the biographies have become a single long saga, and it makes no sense to read any of the chapters out of turn.

He has had setbacks on this long march. Every time a new president is elected, it adds someone else to the list, so at times David falls behind by one president even though he is reading at his usual pace.

The beginning of the new century was also a disappointment: David had just rounded the bend into the 1900s only to find himself lapped by the calendar. And the biographies themselves vary in quality. The humdrum presidents are sometimes chronicled by humdrum biographers, compounding the boredom. But David presses on.

David tells me lots of interesting tidbits about presidents, if I ask the right questions. He is a man of few words, and he knows I don't have the patience for all the policy and politics of the day. So he keeps it simple. "Who was our best president so far?" I ask. "Washington," he replies. "Who was the worst?" "Buchanan." "Who was the fattest?" "Taft." "Who was the shortest?" "Madison." "Who was a good president that no one ever thinks about?" "Polk." "Who would I have liked spending a day with?" "Jefferson." We can go on for hours that way, and often do.

This year, things being as they are, I ask for David's opinion. After all, he has been reading the history of one job for 18 years now. He ought to know something about it. He thinks for a minute and then says, "Well, the presidents, they come and they go. Some wanted to be president, some didn't. Some did good things, some didn't. It will probably keep on that way." I wait for more, but that's it. That's all he has to say, after 18 years of reading.

Later, I find David sitting in his favorite chair, Silent David reading about Silent Cal. He looks up when I come in, and says, "When you ask me which president was the shyest, I'm going to say 'Coolidge.' And another thing: Presidents come and go, but our country stays. I'm really reading about our country."

I think George Washington would be glad about that.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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