The reason Americans venerate their nation’s Founders is that it keeps them humble. Personally humble, at least — however much adoration of the Founding makes for national hubris.
Oh, social reasons exist as well. Europeans found peculiar the hours of recent US Supreme Court argument about the constitutionality of health insurance. But the court was only echoing the national conversation. All across America — in barbershops and coffee houses — this is what you overhear. It’s like walking through a Luis Buñuel film, and the obsession with the Founding is one of the things that binds the nation together.
But the moral reason for deferring to Washington, Jefferson, Madison et al, may be the primary one. Politicians bow their heads a little, gesture toward the wisdom and insight of the Founders, as a way of assuring the public that they have not surrendered to self-importance. From Lincoln to Roosevelt, America has had historic figures, but that was always understood as happenstance: the times calling forth the man. Veneration of the American Founding is supposed to make the nation beware the man who wants to be historic.
Which does raise a worry about Barack Obama, for this is a man who floats above his presidential failures on a cloud of self-importance — a confidence that he is the most historic of figures. In truth, Obama does not use the word “I” much more often than other presidents did, but the idea that he always talks about himself gained traction because he is so obviously self-excited: this is a man who is always thinking “I”, regardless of whether or not he says it.
Witness his mockery, during a speech in March, of Rutherford B. Hayes as a Luddite about the new technology of telephones. Never mind it was false (Hayes was something of a technophile, in fact); the key is that mocking former presidents confirms his sense of himself. As for having his staff rewrite the biographies on the White House website — turning old presidents into humble precursors who made straight the way for Obama — that, too, seems no more to the current president than his due.
The most revealing moment, however, may have come in May when Obama informed Jewish leaders that he knows “about Judaism more than any other president”, despite the fact that James Madison was a Hebrew scholar of some renown. John F. Kennedy, no slouch in the arrogance department, once told a set of Nobel prizewinners that they were the greatest gathering of learning in the White House “since Thomas Jefferson dined alone”. That the line was scripted, there is no doubt — but it was scripted to express a certain American piety about the Founders.
It would have been so easy for Obama to make a similar gesture: “I know as much as about Judaism as any president, except, of course, for Madison — who knew more in a day than most of us will know in a lifetime.” But that would have needed some humility, however false. It would have required Obama to present himself as something less than the greatest gift history has ever made to the presidency.
The man whose mind is the mind of “I” could never allow such a thought to intrude.