Last week I read up on the American presidents with President’s Day approaching.
Suffice to say it is a disappointing collection when you put them side by side, all 44 of them, all men of course.
In the great historical sweep of things Barack Obama stands out for being black, John F. Kennedy for being Catholic, the only two deviations from the white male Protestant hegemony that rules the most important job in the world
I knew little of the earlier ones growing up in Ireland. While every house had a portrait of JFK and a knowledge of the greatness of Lincoln and Washington, most of the others were unknowns.
What struck me reading about them this past week was the mediocrity of the vast majority of the men who held the office. Sure there are magnificent standouts, Washington for one, refusing to accept a crown and standing down when re-election was certain.
But he also kept his slaves as The New York Times reminded us on Monday, and even pursued one of his wife Martha's slaves to the bitter end when she made off after learning she was about to be given to another family as a wedding gift.
He also brought in the first fugitive slave law making it legal to pursue them wherever they fled to.
Jefferson was magnificent as were many of the early presidents, especially Andrew Jackson, but once the 1840s are upon us we get the inexorable sense of a country sliding ever closer to tragedy with no firm hand at the tiller.
Jackson was the closest thing to an Irish president, born of Irish Protestant parents who had emigrated two years earlier. His father was from Carrickfergus in Antrim.
After Jackson the presidents with the exception of Polk seem remarkable nonentities until Lincoln, sleepwalking towards the Civil War.
With the hindsight of history you want to reach back and have a word in the ear of nonentities like Van Buren, Pierce, Buchanan.
The latter was the one who had the last great opportunity to stop the South's secession but meekly handed it over to the courts knowing full well what they would adjudicate. He is usually rated the worst president ever, yet he assumed office at the most important time given the foment over slave and free states.
By punting it to the Supreme Court he knew he was abdicating responsibility. Thus came the Dred Scott decision, infamous now but hailed then, making the slave a similar piece of possession to a horse or mule.
Franklin Pierce his predecessor was also a bust, a family tragedy when his young son was killed before his inauguration rendered him useless in office where he became an inveterate drunk.
The heroic role of Lincoln seems all the more remarkable given what came before and his own unpromising origins. He was the Pope Francis of his day, a bolt from the blue who showed a hollowed out institution at some moments can surprise and get it right.
Ahead were some great presidents too, FDR in particular, and so we flash past to the present day.
There is an African American president with a woman the favorite as of right now to succeed him.
One wonders what the crusty old gentlemen who occupied the post in the past would make of all that. No doubt some of them not so much.
But the ability to reinvent as Washington, Lincoln and FDR did is the secret of the presidency.
It appears to be doing that right now, reflecting the America of today in all its diversity. It remains an institution like no other clearly still capable of surprising.