It is a mystery to educated people from other countries: What is it with the American fascination with presidents?
School children know their names in order by heart. Parents date important moments of their lives by who was in the Oval Office. Many people collect objects associated with their favorites. Why?
My wife, Ines, is from Peru. When I visited her family in the early 1990s and stayed at their small farmhouse about 30 miles south of the capital, Lima, they were baffled by my interest in presidents and the buying and selling of their artifacts. Peru declared its independence from Spain in 1821. Yet very few know – or, honestly, want to know – who all the Peruvian presidents have been. (There have been 72, including the current president, Alan Garcia).
Except for artifacts associated with the royal families of Europe, few people elsewhere collect and learn about their heads of state. I don’t recall collectors vying for the signatures of prime ministers, reciting their country’s presidents during their lifetimes or knowing all the presidents of Tanzania through history.
It could very well be because U.S. presidents are, in fact, us. (Or, they claim to be.) In our system where presidents are home-grown, they come from humble and privileged beginnings alike, have been educated or not, have been provincial or international, have been part of large families or single children, are religious or not, have struggled or not and have known disaster or lifelong peace.
Or, maybe it is because under our Constitution, if you are at least 35 and born in the U.S., you are free to run for the office, but only four years at a time and then only twice. That’s it.
And, we can criticize them. We can celebrate them. We can feel pride, we can feel anger, we can feel disappointment. We will always participate in their selection and evaluation, we will always have our say and we can vow do to better. No matter how they achieved their office – election, appointment, or succession – our presidents have come from where we live and we feel responsible for them – good or bad.
Through our collecting, we identify with the philosophy of our candidates and our president. The campaigns, the rewards of office, our access to the day-to-day struggle to manage a large community of interests and peoples is something felt by every one of us, every day.
Very philosophical, I know. But where else are collectors interested in Abraham Lincoln’s pocket litter or sunglasses worn by John F. Kennedy? Where else – and why – except here, would anyone possibly care about these things?