It’s shortly after 9 a.m. on a muggy Tuesday morning in Sarasota, Florida. You’re reading a book—The Pet Goat—to a group of 16 children at Emma E. Booker Elementary School, a normal event in a national push for education reform. All of a sudden, your chief of staff, Andy Card, walks up and whispers in your ear: the United States has just been attacked. An airplane has flown into the World Trade Center. We don’t know who did it, and the attacks may be continuing.
If you stop reading, and leave in a flurry, you’ll scare the kids in front of you and project panic on the nation. If you pause and finish the story, you’ll surely be criticized for that, too. The country you lead is staring war in the face, and your own family, including your wife Laura in Washington, may be in the crosshairs. If you’re President George W. Bush, what on earth do you do?
It’s mid-December, 2012. A madman has just ravaged an elementary school in Connecticut, leaving 20 children and six faculty dead in his wake. You travel to Newtown to try and provide some measure of solace to the grieving families, and offer thoughts to a country so rocked by repeated tragedies that they’re on the verge of desensitization. You’ve known sorrow and death—quiet meetings with military families who lost their sons or daughters in Afghanistan, memorial service remarks at disaster after disaster—but this one hits too close to home. These babies looked like your babies. In the faces of these parents, you see yourself. If you’re Barack Obama, when the spotlight comes on, and it’s time for you to speak, how do you hold it together? How do you do what you’re called to do?
It’s late February, and the cold of winter outside your house is nothing compared to the icy pain inside. Your son, Willie, contracted a terrible sickness, likely after drinking the water from the place that you moved him to, the White House. After a brief illness, your dear boy dies. His body lies in state in the Green Room downstairs, while his mother, your wife, joins you upstairs, grieved to the point of brokenness. And as much as you want to comfort Mary on that afternoon, there is something else tugging at your attention: Jefferson Davis has just been inaugurated as President of the Confederacy, and years of war and bloodshed for the country loom large, if you’ll even have a country at all. If you’re Abraham Lincoln, how do you grieve and lead in these two distinct spaces? What do you do?
In response to these questions we can only offer opinions, not answers. Because there are no good answers. In these moments and others we’ll never know, the Commander in Chief of the United States, our President, was handed a weight that most of us will never carry. It’s a weight they chose, true enough. But it’s one they shoulder alone.
Perhaps that’s why historians have called the presidency the loneliest job in the world. Or why these men have so often sought the comfort of friends on the golf course, or made out of the East Wing a cocoon for their family, or retreated to Camp David for a few days rest. More than one—including Presidents Bush and Obama—have frequently made the walk across the North Lawn of the White House to St. John’s Episcopal Church, to spend a few moments in silent prayer.
But on President’s Day—more than any other day—these men need not be alone in their prayers. The third Monday in February presents a unique opportunity to remember the burdens of presidents past and present, and stretch our thoughts towards them, in a way that we would not do most other days of the year.
We don’t owe them our unflagging political support; we can provide and remove that as we please.
We also don’t owe them our full trust; when they earn it, they’ll have it, and when they do not, we’ll take it away.
But these 44 flawed, brilliant, broken and brave men have sought to lead us as best as they could. They don’t always get it right. They have fallen short as often as they’ve soared. But they aren’t just avatars, figurines on a television screen devoid of character and life. They are men, real men, with fears and challenges and dreams. And we have the ability to intercede on their behalf to our Maker.
We can pray for their health and well-being. We can pray for their families, for their courage, for their peace of mind. We can remember the presidents who have passed away, and even pray for the ones yet to come.
It is a good use of a few minutes on a Monday off, for leaders who carry burdens we’ll never know. For our own presidents, a whisper of a prayer.