How We Mourn Our Presidents | Washington Monthly (2023)

There have been 46 American presidents, eight of whom died in office, over 17 percent of the total. (Four by assassination and four by illness.) Thirty-two died after their presidencies. Professor Lindsay M. Chervinsky, a frequent contributor to the Washington Monthly, has co-edited a new volume on presidential mourning that is being released on President’s Day, along with Matthew R. Costello. This article is adapted from her introduction to Mourning the Presidents: Loss and Legacy in American Culture. The volume is a reminder of the power of the presidency. Some Generation Xers may think of themselves as born during Richard Nixon’s presidency. Precious few, if any, would think of themselves as being born during the tenure of his chief justice. “I’m a Warren Burger baby,” said no one. Six American presidents remain with us, and while we wish them all good health, their time will come and perhaps soon. One is in his 90s (Jimmy Carter); one in his 80s (Joe Biden); three in their 70s (Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Donald Trump); and one in his 60s (Barack Obama). How they pass and when they do will be part of the tableau of American history and worth pondering on this holiday.

—The Editors

On November 30, 2018, former President George H. W. Bush died at age 94. Over the next week, Americans of all colors, creeds, religions, and political affiliations acknowledged the elder statesman. Political foes set aside their differences and came together to celebrate Bush’s lifetime of public service. Even President Donald Trump, who had frequently bashed members of the Bush family publicly and on social media, curtailed his criticisms. He permitted the Bush family to stay at Blair House—the president’s guest house—during the state funeral in Washington, D.C.

How the nation responds to the death of an American president reveals much about the political climate, social values, domestic divisions, and international pressures facing the United States at the moment of his passing. In 2018, Democrats and Republicans reacted to President Trump’s departure from most political norms by celebrating George H. W. Bush’s dedication to the country, ability to work with politicians on both sides of the aisle, and moderate positions on environmental protections and gun reform. In the years ahead, scholars will determine whether these reflections on Bush’s legacy were accurate as they reevaluate his presidency.

Trump’s presidency affected more than one presidential legacy. In 2009, President George W. Bush left office with a 33-percent approval rating, depressed by an economic recession, a mishandled natural disaster in Hurricane Katrina, and an unpopular war in the Middle East—the second-lowest approval rating since pollsters started calculating public opinion. In contrast, by 2018, 61 percent of Americans held a favorable view of Bush in retrospect. Many Americans recalled the days of Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” and forgot his role in instigating the then-still ongoing military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The evolving legacies of the Bush presidents, their shifting positions in historical memory, and their complicated relationship to contemporary events are not unique to these former presidents. Evaluations of each U.S. president’s achievements while in office remain malleable as patterns of memory shift. And each new meaning reveals much about how American culture and society continue to evolve. Americans’ reactions to the passing of a president and the immediate discussion of his legacy often say little about that person’s tenure in office. Instead, mourning rituals and memory reflect the existing tensions, values, and goals of American society at that moment. Critically, the mourning and memorialization processes have evolved as the nation’s needs and values have changed. Our new book explores that process for 12 of the 45 men that have served in the highest office.

Presidents take on an almost mythical status in American memory. They are the nation’s representative on the world stage, hold a position of immense authority, and are more visible to average American citizens than institutions like the Supreme Court with its lifetime appointees or Congress with hundreds of members and frequent turnover. Many scholars have considered the legacies of individual presidents or compared administrations. Still, no one has offered a comparative analysis of how mourning and presidential legacy have changed over time, the similarities between presidential deaths, or how different communities’ views of presidents have evolved. No published work has presented a critical approach to what happens after presidents die.

There are several popular works about presidential death and scandal in the White House and beyond, but they generally don’t assess how presidential deaths reflect the moment and how presidential legacies evolve over time. The new volume that we edited offers a more analytical approach to these pivotal moments in American history and generates greater dialogue among and between presidential historians and scholars of culture, war, and memory.

We hope it encourages readers to think critically about the deaths and legacies of American presidents. By telling these stories over two centuries, these essays contribute to our understanding of the role of the presidency in American culture, how Americans grapple with grief and complex legacies, and the power of the presidency to divide or unite U.S. citizens.

Offering a chapter on every American president who has passed to date would have been the most thorough approach in examining the rituals and memory practices surrounding their deaths, but practical considerations eliminated that possibility. Accordingly, we sought chapters that met three considerations. First, we designed the volume to have a relative balance between 19th- and 20th-century history. Second, we selected chapters that represented both well-known presidents and lesser-studied individuals. The volume would reveal less if it only included George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan.

The chapters generally follow the same outline: an explanation of the death of the specific president, the immediate public reaction, and the mourning rituals at the time. We then encouraged each scholar who contributed to the volume to explore the ongoing evolution of the president’s legacy and what the memory of that president suggests about the shifting values that animate American society and culture. We also encouraged the authors to take innovative approaches to avoid repeating past scholarship, especially for the well-known presidents whose deaths have been covered at length, like Washington, Lincoln, and especially Kennedy, whose death carries unusual weight in American memory—perhaps because of the graphic video footage of the assassination or the presence of constant television and radio press coverage. In some ways, the nuances of his presidency and legacy have been overshadowed by his assassination and the tragic end of the glamorous “Camelot” era. As a result, the wider public often overlooks Kennedy’s relative conservatism but instead credits him for much of the legislation that passed after his death. The chapter on Kennedy explores the origins of this narrative. It examines the ways in which African Americans have elevated Kennedy’s presidency and amplified his role in the civil rights narrative. The chapter on George H. W. Bush also takes a slightly different approach. Because his death and the ceremonies took place so recently, we opted to include a contribution from someone who was involved in the planning process. Accordingly, this chapter adopts a more personal tone than the others.

How exactly presidents die—either in or outside of office—affects their memory and legacy. Those who die in office spark national mourning but lack the opportunity to participate in the crafting of their own legacy. For example, the country mourned Franklin D. Roosevelt and Kennedy, but these men did not leave behind the records or thoughtful planning offered by Herbert Hoover or George H. W. Bush.

The violent nature of Abraham Lincoln’s and John F. Kennedy’s assassinations produced an outpouring of shock and grief that have rarely accompanied more predictable presidential deaths. These passings also force us to consider the “martyr effect.” The tragic nature of a president’s death can cause the American public to overlook flaws and failures. For example, despite Kennedy’s extramarital affairs, role in the start of the Vietnam War, or foreign policy failures like the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, he still stands in the top ten of presidents in most C-SPAN presidential historian ranking polls.

The martyr effect also has its limitations, as it rarely extends to James A. Garfield or William McKinley. Perhaps length of tenure and Americans’ perceptions of their successors determine the extent of martyrdom. Garfield served for only six months, and McKinley was overshadowed by the colorful personality of Theodore Roosevelt. In contrast, memory of Kennedy’s term in office benefits from Lyndon B. Johnson’s somewhat problematic presidency. Although Johnson shepherded through important civil rights and anti-poverty legislation, he never overcame the stain of the Vietnam War, and in presidential polls, Kennedy usually outranks him.

There are also important changes over time. Some 18th- and 19th-century presidents have presidential libraries and historical sites. Still, they rarely offer the robust archives for deep scholarly and public engagement provided by the presidential libraries built in the 20th century and operated by the staff of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). Additionally, 20th-century presidential libraries have become burial sites for most presidents, including Hoover, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Reagan, and George H. W. Bush, which suggests a closer relationship between legacy, mourning, and memorial. Theodore Roosevelt and Reagan are helpful examples, as they were involved in crafting their legacy and planning their final resting places. Their presidencies and their values continued to dominate politics long after their time in office, often with their encouragement or that of their families, especially former first ladies.

The role of race in American society and civil rights is another theme that weaves through the volume. The public responses to Lincoln’s and Kennedy’s passing, as well as the deaths of Jefferson, Jackson, and Andrew Johnson, revealed divisions within the American populace along racial lines or over issues of civil rights. This process is ongoing. As Americans grapple with their country’s complicated racial history, these presidents’ continually reassessed relationships to Black Americans, Native Americans, and the intertwined matters of race and citizenship will shape and reshape their evolving legacies.

While issues of race and civil rights challenge presidential legacies, several chapters also reveal the harsh truth that an ineffective presidency limits the potential for legacy and rehabilitation. Taylor and Hoover share similar stories in this regard. Both were celebrated for their careers before their presidencies (and, in Hoover’s case, after he left office), yet both of their administrations served as a low point in their years of public service. Their inability or inefficacy as presidents proved a stumbling block for mourners and eulogists. Whereas Taylor died too quickly to rehabilitate his image post-presidency, Hoover spent decades emphasizing the parts of his story worth celebrating.

As the body politic has broadened to include more types of people, so too have the mourning rituals expanded to include diverse communities and traditions.

We organized this volume in the fall of 2019 before the national conversation erupted over Black Lives Matter, systemic racism, and police brutality. This social justice movement unfolded alongside the ongoing conversation about Confederate monuments, statues, and how we remember and celebrate the past. These conversations cannot be separated from each other nor from the history of America’s presidents. Take the National Mall, for example. At the east end stands the U.S. Capitol, a symbol of American democracy, and to the north sits the White House, the home of the presidents—both built largely by enslaved labor. In the center of the Mall, the Washington Monument looms over all other buildings in the city, a massive memorial to the nation’s first president. Over the course of his lifetime, Washington owned hundreds of enslaved individuals, freed 123 people in his will, and failed to take further action in support of abolition.

At the west end, the Lincoln Memorial celebrates the preservation of the Union and acknowledges the eradication of slavery. Flanking the Tidal Basin are monuments of historic figures that embody the nation’s complex history with slavery and race. Thomas Jefferson authored the phrase “all men are created equal,” while enslaving hundreds of individuals and carrying on a long-term sexual relationship with an enslaved woman named Sally Hemings. Just across the basin from the Jefferson Memorial, a sculpture of Martin Luther King Jr. looms as a reminder of the unmet promises articulated in the Declaration of Independence.

This volume reflects the nation’s centuries-long effort to conceal and come to terms with the presidential role in this complicated past. Often presidential deaths, from Washington to Taylor, sparked periods of intense disruption, loss, and family separation in Black communities. After the Civil War, Black Americans continued to carve out separate spaces for mourning and commemoration of beloved presidents like Lincoln and Kennedy.

While the monuments that decorate the National Mall have remained unchanged across the decades, how Americans understand the presidents and their legacies rarely remains static. Presidential libraries, foundations, historians, and activists shape our memory and understanding of the presidents and their legacies. Presidential papers projects make this labor possible, revealing valuable details about figures who left little archival record of their own. For example, while most of the enslaved population at Mount Vernon and Monticello was illiterate and left no written documentation, many aspects of their lives were captured in Washington’s and Jefferson’s papers, including clothing purchases, medical treatment, births and deaths, punishment, occupation and tasks, and family ties. Although these papers projects were funded to document the lives and contributions of prominent white men, scholars have mined the depths of their information to share stories about women, working people, and people of color. The unexpected benefits of presidential archives apply to 20th-century presidents as well. The archives at the Franklin D. Roosevelt, Kennedy, and Reagan Libraries reveal connections between race, gender, and policy, and missed opportunities in the New Deal, the Civil Rights Movement, and the HIV-AIDS epidemic. These repositories guarantee that future generations of scholars will continue to make important discoveries and offer a reassessment of these leaders. They also demonstrate that the nation’s grappling with presidential history and presidential legacies is only just beginning.


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