Tuesday, February 22, 2011

My 13 Presidents

Schools and banks were closed, no mail was delivered but, aside from that, nobody seemed to notice Presidents Day.

In a Gallup poll, Ronald Reagan is named "greatest," followed by Abraham Lincoln, Bill Clinton, John F. Kennedy, George Washington, Franklin D. Roosevelt--and Barack Obama. (Name recognition seems to matter.)

For someone who has lived through 13 of 44 White House occupants, "greatest" is meaningless. The important question is how much difference did the men in the Oval Office make in the lives of Americans.

They used to inaugurate them on my birthday, March 4th, and FDR took office in 1933 when I turned nine. I was past 21 on April 12, 1945, sleeping in uniform on a German farmhouse floor when someone shook me awake to tell me the only President I had ever known was dead.

After the Great Depression and World War II, the tenure of future Presidents went by in a relative blur. Harry Truman dropped atomic bombs--twice--to end the war, making the U.S. the only nation ever to use that ultimate weapon.

In the 1950s, Dwight Eisenhower prided himself on staying in the "middle of the road," in retrospect an admirable undertaking, followed by Kennedy's thousand days, in which he learned after a Bay of Pigs fiasco how to avoid blowing up the world in the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Lyndon Johnson passed an historic Civil Rights law, started a War on Poverty but left office in despair after escalating a small Vietnam War to tragic proportions.

Then came Nixon, the first President who resigned to avoid impeachment for criminal activities, followed by Ford, a decent, ineffectual man who gave way to Jimmy Carter, the poster boy for why intelligence and good intentions have to be accompanied by political skills.

Ronald Reagan brought those to the job in abundance, but his publicity sainthood now overlooks a much more mundane reality, which Bush I failed to paper over with a "vision thing" followed by Bill Clinton, who ruined his policy accomplishments with personal misbehavior.

Bush II gave us a pointless war and left behind a collapsing economy, which Barack Obama inherited to oversee a "fingers in the dike" presidency to this very day.

The haunting thought about this baker's dozen of men is how much difference it would have made in our lives if their tenures had been scrambled in time.

Questions about whether Republicans would nominate Eisenhower now and how much racism motivates Tea Party hatred of Obama are beside the point without factoring in whether the historical situation that brought them to the White House, rather than their individual appeal or merits, got them elected in the first place.

Untangling cause and effect is impossible but the mystery to be pondered from President's Day is to what extent do we get the presidents we want, need and deserve, consciously or not, as history unfolds.

Up to now, we have escaped basically unscathed, but next year may test our good sense and good luck.

Update: What hasn't changed from then to now is that Americans have not been content to criticize Presidents and their policies but their families as well.

FDR complained about insults to Eleanor and even his dog Fala. Now comes portly Rush Limbaugh to pontificate that "it doesn't look like Michelle Obama follows her own nutritionary (sic), dietary advice. And then we hear that she's out eating ribs at 1,500 calories a serving with 141 grams of fat per serving."

No word on how El Rushbo feels about the White House puppy.

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