I am standing at the entrance to American History.
People murmur in passing, on their ways up and down the Mall’s sidewalks. Near a tall white obelisk, someone flies a kite with skill and grace, making it dive and loop and dance through the air. Other people wait in line at a food truck selling Philly cheesesteaks. I can see the steam from the hot sandwiches rise into the cold January air, here, outside the entrance to American History.
A year from today, the National Park Service will make the final preparations for the Presidential Inauguration. The stage on the Capitol steps, the chairs for those with tickets and connections, and the cordons guiding those without will all stand ready for the next day’s crowd. The souvenir vendors will have their merchandise ready to sell, the Secret Service will make final adjustments to their security plan, just as designers will put their own last touches on inaugural ballgowns and suits.
The crowd may extend down to American History, but it depends. Sometimes the weather keeps people away; sometimes even rain, snow, subzero temperatures couldn’t keep people away. Sometimes they fill the Mall past the white obelisk, where today the kite flier deftly makes the long tail spin into a fluttering spiral.
Today is January 19. A year and a day from now, someone will stand at the center of that stage, place a hand on a book, and take the oath of office: I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States. At that moment, they make history. They enter American history.
That’s in the future, though. Right now, I am the person about to enter American History, one of the nineteen museums of the Smithsonian Institution. In this building, we keep those items at the core of our identity as Americans: the Star-Spangled Banner and the Greensboro Woolworth’s lunch counter, Edison’s light bulb and Dorothy’s ruby slippers, even a piece of Route 66.
On the top floor of the building, front and center, as if to underscore their centrality to the American narrative, we will find the exhibit on the American Presidency. In the nearly quarter millennium of America’s existence, forty-four men have stepped into that role, some by design, some reluctantly, some by accident and happenstance. All of them were leaders of a country, symbols of America and its changing identity, and all of them were men, with desires and talents and flaws.
In the exhibit, visitors can see the artifacts that connect these men to the crucial moments in America’s experiment with democracy. Near the entrance, we find the inkstand of George Washington, who, before he was the first president of the United States, was the president of the Constitutional Convention, leading the group that determined how this country would function. Beyond that, we see the top hat worn by Abraham Lincoln that night at Ford’s Theater, when he was murdered by a man who hated that, with a stroke of a pen on a January day, Lincoln had proclaimed the emancipation of the men, women, and children enslaved in the rebellious South, thereby changing and challenging our ideas of who is an American. In a display case to the side, we can see the file cabinet from a psychologist’s office, its drawers wrenched open by a team of burglars, setting into motion a chain of events that would culminate in the resignation of Richard Nixon, the first president to leave the office that way.
More and more—photos of their families and their lives in the White House; their working relationships with (and sometimes against) the other two branches of government; their campaigns and their decisions, successes and failures, all collected at the focal point, front and center, of the National Museum of American History.
Perhaps we give them too much prominence, and yet, on the sidewalk, a year and a day before the next inauguration, a kite dancing in the air behind me, I am struck by these forty-four men as a way to understand this country. It’s a representative democracy, after all—we are them. They stand for us. For good, or for bad, the president is the one we look to with the hope that he will lead the country forward.
I could go somewhere else. I could see machines that soar in the air or dinosaurs that roamed the Earth. I could see art from around the world, or I could see panda bears and Komodo dragons, or I could ride a carousel in front of a castle. I could leave the past and the presidents for another day, if I so chose.
Instead, I walk across the plaza, fifty state flags flapping in the wind. I pull open the door, and I disappear into American History.
Fortieth President of the United States
194 years since the Constitution
118 years since Emancipation
7 years since the resignation
FADE IN—An empty stage, dark except for a spotlight on a single stool. In the distance, we hear evidence of a crowd: murmuring, brief snatches of music, muted applause. Some sort of gathering is taking place, but what exactly, this is hidden from us.
Into the frame walks the AUTHOR, tall, middle-aged white guy, glasses. He looks younger than he is, but he feels old. He sits on the stool.
AUTHOR: My memory switched on at the very end of the 1970s, but only for the big stuff—my little sister’s birth, to be exact. I remember walking through snow with my father to the back of the hospital, and him lifting me up to the window to see my mother and sister.
It’s a while before I’m aware of the world around me, bigger than my family and friends, bigger than the clearing we play in and the short street that is my universe. But when I am aware of that world, there he is, on the television and the newspaper, the one in charge, the first man I know as president.
Lights go up on REAGAN, standing stage left at a podium with the presidential seal, in a brown suit. Crowd noises get louder for a moment.
AUTHOR: I don’t know why, but something unnerves me from the start. Maybe it’s my parents’ reaction to him. Maybe it’s the perfect hair, the jar of jellybeans. Maybe it’s the way he’s always everywhere. I go to a Catholic school, where I learn about the omnipresence of God. Maybe it’s that.
ENTER DUKE—yeah, him. He’s wearing nautical gear—a sou’wester hat and an oilskin coat. Good sideburns on him. He stands under a third spotlight. Crowd noises get louder than we’ve heard them before. He looks brave.
DUKE: You startin’ to tell my future?
AUTHOR: (Looks back) Only the end. (To audience) He, on the other hand, died earlier in 1979, before I can remember anything, but he’s always there too. He reminds my mother of her father, who will die the next year. I’ve got a handful of memories of him, nothing much.
DUKE: Stop yawing and finish off! (His light fades)
AUTHOR: Anyway. There you are. Here’s your ground situation: a young boy, the hard men, both actors, both performers. You can’t break character if you’re always playing yourself.
Lights up on DUKE again, who is now in a deep-sea diving suit.
DUKE: Bolt the faceplate on! (One is bolted on. Two rubbery tentacles, ostensibly belonging to a prop giant squid, reach in, pulling him off stage. Both AUTHOR and REAGAN watch, then turn back. No crowd noise.)
REAGAN: We are faced with the most evil enemy mankind has known in his long climb from the swamp to the stars.
AUTHOR: I understood story, and conflict, and character. I understood that there were good guys and bad guys. The lines seemed clearly drawn, the ending of the script already written. We would take this as far as it needed to go.
DUKE re-enters, this time in the uniform of a navy man—a Seabee, a member of the Construction Brigade.
DUKE: Sure, I’ve changed. I was never one for sitting on fences.
REAGAN: Well, one of the worst mistakes anybody can make is to bet against Americans.
AUTHOR: With us or against us, right? No middle ground. I was a ten-year-old who thought about nuclear weapons all the time. I couldn’t forget. There was nowhere to hide from it. Once I’d seen the old test footage—the black and white film in the Nevada desert, the side of the house bursting into flames before disintegrating—I couldn’t forget it.
DUKE: Why didn’t you stay in the bomb shelter?
REAGAN: The United States does not start fights. We will never be an aggressor. We maintain our strength in order to deter and defend against aggression—to preserve freedom and peace.
DUKE: Hold your fire ’til you get ’em under your guns—then let ’em have it! (From offstage, a sniper’s bullet hits DUKE. The wound is strangely bloodless. Lights down on him. Still no crowd noise.)
AUTHOR: I was a ten-year-old boy who knew what Mutually Assured Destruction meant.
REAGAN: My fellow Americans, I am pleased to tell you I just signed legislation which outlaws Russia forever. The bombing begins in five minutes.
AUTHOR: He actually said that. I’m not making any of this up. They were testing a mic. I’d call it a gaffe if he hadn’t built an entire career in front of microphones.
Lights up on DUKE, again, although he is now in a sea captain’s hat and coat.
DUKE: Anyone else who wants to start a fight aboard this ship can see what he looks like when he’s through.
REAGAN: There you go again. (Crowd cheers)
AUTHOR: It’s a sore spot. Put him on the dime? Put him on Mount Rushmore? They laud him endlessly, sing his praises, hold him up as the purest of Republicans, but it’s like they’ve never even considered him and what he actually did.
DUKE: You seem to know what you want, and I think I know what it is. (He exits)
AUTHOR: I want the roles to stop. I want an honest answer. I want a childhood where I didn’t think about a mushroom cloud appearing over my school, where I didn’t think about radiation poisoning. Are all children in all generations terrified of the things they can’t control? Just mine? Just me? (A few boos from the crowd)
REAGAN: No weapon in the arsenals of the world is so formidable as the will and moral courage of free men and women.
DUKE re-enters, again in the deep-sea diving outfit.
AUTHOR: Says the guy who wanted lasers in space to shoot down missiles. (Beat) But, you know, I don’t know. It’s not like we had a nuclear war. Communism fell. I was scared of the bomb, but I also romanticized it. I admired Oppenheimer’s determination. My family made a side trip to Los Alamos during vacation, my request. I remember—
DUKE: Here we are again, right back where we started. You got what you wanted—now I’m gonna get what I want. Alright, Jack! (Faceplate on. From upstage, his air hose is severed. He pulls it to him, looks at it in horror, collapses. Lights down on him.)
AUTHOR: He could bounce back. Nothing stuck. Remember, they called him the Teflon President. He even broke the Curse of Tecumseh, which had killed seven other presidents.
DUKE re-enters in military fatigues.
DUKE: I feel a lot better. Never felt so good in my life! How ’bout a cigarette? (Again, DUKE is felled by a sniper’s bullet. Lights down on him.)
AUTHOR: Reagan, he gets shot, and in the emergency room, he’s able to look at the surgeons and say—
REAGAN: I hope you’re all Republicans. (Crowd laughs)
AUTHOR: And when his wife finally sees him, he can look at her and say—
REAGAN: Honey, I forgot to duck. (Crowd laughs louder)
AUTHOR: That’s stage presence. That’s impressive, maybe even admirable.
ENTER DUKE, this time in buckskin jacket and coonskin cap. He looks, for the first time, older.
DUKE: Another thing I promised Mother—never to get into situations where people pointed guns at me.
AUTHOR: You know neither of them fought in World War II? Reagan’s eyesight kept him home, where he made training films with the 1st Motion Picture Unit. Wayne was deferred, 3-A, because of his family, and his studio also pulled some strings. They made combat movies instead of actual combat. If you’re only ever playing the character of you, when do you start to believe your own scripts?
DUKE: Some words can give you a warm feeling.
AUTHOR: When does the individual memory become the fact? Was I even at the hospital in November of 1979?
REAGAN: In spite of the wildly speculative and false stories of arms for hostages and alleged ransom payments, we did not—repeat did not—trade weapons or anything else for hostages, nor will we.
AUTHOR: What do we have to do to save ourselves from our enemies? From ourselves?
REAGAN: A few months ago, I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages. My heart and my best intentions still tell me that’s true, but the facts and evidence tell me it is not.
DUKE: Half of you men throw up a barricade here, throw up a barricade. Go to the north wall! (From upstage, a bayonet stabs him. He stumbles off and we hear a sound like a powder magazine explosion. Some dust clouds spread on stage.)
AUTHOR: What’s his legacy? The resurgence of conservatives? The debt? A military-industrial complex? We’re still nervous about Russia. We’re still trying to figure out Iran. We still have all these bombs all over the country, any of which could get loose. Sometimes these days, I think about Mutually Assured Destruction or nuclear winter, and sometimes I stand on the National Mall or in midtown Manhattan and think about a suitcase or a car trunk and what could fit inside it.
DUKE re-enters, noticeably older, dressed as a cattle driver, red bandanna around his neck.
DUKE: Summer’s over.
AUTHOR: Is it? I wonder if we’re getting better or worse. I can’t tell.
DUKE: You’re a pretty independent character, aren’t you?
REAGAN: After two hundred years, the centuries, she still stands strong and true to the granite ridge, and her glow has held no matter what storm. And she’s still a beacon, still a magnet for all who must have freedom, for all the pilgrims from all the lost places who are hurtling through the darkness, toward here.
AUTHOR: I’m at an age when my fears no longer feel irrational. I worry about what’s next, what’s to be done to help the future. I don’t have kids, but I think about what happens next anyway.
Several shots from behind hit DUKE. He collapses to the floor.
DUKE: I’m proud of you. All of you. Every man wants his children to be better than he was. You are. (Lights down on him)
AUTHOR: John Wayne died on screen in just seven movies. Reagan only played a bad guy a handful of times. In movies, you get rehearsals, second takes, third takes, more. Edit booths. If a narrative gets tough, you dissolve to the next scene. The real world is different. Right?
DUKE re-enters. He looks very old. We notice, too, that REAGAN has also aged. Maybe, too, the AUTHOR. What happened to the crowd? Where did they go?
DUKE: We all have our time.
AUTHOR: Anyone can be president, we tell ourselves. Really, though, not even four dozen men over a couple hundred years. That’s it. That’s the movie we’ve been watching.
REAGAN: I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life.
DUKE: This is my birthday. Gimme the best in the house. Thank you, sir. (Four bullets strike him from off stage. He collapses. Lights down on him.)
AUTHOR: I don’t remember it happening this way. (Lights down on him.)
REAGAN: I know that for America there will always be a bright dawn ahead.
FADE OUT—THE END.
Rumpus original art by Zach Swisher.
Excerpted from Execute the Office: Essays with Presidents by Colin Rafferty. Copyright © 2021 by Colin Rafferty. Reprinted by permission, courtesy of Baobab Press.