I’ve managed to read about the first 41 men to serve as president. It’s been a great way to look back at US history. I’m sure, though, there are some ideologues out there who wonder why I’m not using these posts to foam and froth at the mouth about George W. Bush or Barack Obama. Simple.
To look at these two administrations, especially when one of these men is still in office, usually ends up being an excuse to foam and froth at the mouth. There’s too much foaming and frothing, usually with a lot of misinformation. Then again, we are a society that thought what Phil Robertson said was really, really important. (Hint: No, it wasn’t.) The simple fact is their tenures are too recent for an objective look.
I admit I was hard on George W. Bush. It was hard not to be when we were embroiled in a war that turned out to have a dubious purpose, coupled with an exploding deficit. Likewise, Barack Obama could have cruised through an easy second term were it not for a signature program ham-strung by a poorly designed web site.
Still, in reading about all their predecessors, I’ve discovered often that, when a president screws up, the results are almost immediate. Their accomplishments, though, often aren’t noticed until years afterward.
What I’ve also discovered (and have witnessed in recent years) is that modern presidents generally take a dim view of criticism of their successors. For instance, George W. Bush, who will occasionally defend himself if he thinks Barack Obama might have crossed a line, generally frowns on those trying to bait him into attacking Obama. “He deserves my silence,” he famously said. Granted, Nixon was hard on his successors. He thought Carter was an idiot, and he never really forgave Reagan for shifting the party’s ideology. Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt had a legendary feud that kept Hoover out of the public policy loop until late in World War II. Truman eventually offered the olive branch. Eisenhower was a mentor to Kennedy. Nixon sometimes turned to Johnson for advice. Both Bushes and Clinton have worked together on humanitarian efforts.
It wasn’t always like this, though. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson did not speak for years after Adams left office, and only settled their differences in their old age. Adams’ son John Quincy Adams, made it a point to be a thorn in the side of Andrew Jackson. And William Howard Taft and Theodore Roosevelt fought each other so bitterly, it all but guaranteed a Woodrow Wilson presidency.
But prior to the twentieth century, America seldom had more than one or two former presidents living. While the Viriginia Dynasty and Adams survived well into the younger Adams’ administration, it wasn’t until the leadup to the Civil War that we had more than three living presidents. There were a record six alive on the day Abraham Lincoln assumed office (one of whom could not wait to get out of Washington.)
Most presidents loved the job. Many did not. Buchanan, arguably the worst chief executive, was so disgusted that he told Lincoln he was happier than the new president to be leaving. William Howard Taft only ran as a favor to Theodore Roosevelt and to please his wife. He himself wanted a seat on the Supreme Court (which he later attained.) Truman and Ford both felt overwhelmed. Chester Arthur hated the job and the system that put him there virtually unelected.
But really, presidents are often only as good as the Congresses we saddle them with. Yes, I said “We.” You and I are the ones who vote for all 435 representatives and 100 senators. So some of the blame for the recent gridlock, the government shutdown, and even the more poorly thought-out parts of the ACA goes to us the people. Some of it. We’re still paying them to get stuff done, whether what the president proposes or some opposition alternative. So while we probably need to do a better job picking people to send to Washington for lobbyists to bribe, ultimately, they need to do their jobs.
Presidents don’t normally do well when their party holds Congress. It’s almost (not always, but almost) a rubber stamp on a president’s agenda with no chance for opponents to adjust legislation. However, it seems that the worst scenario is when Congress is split between parties, which is a large reason why this Congress is one of the most despised Congresses in US history.
One thing that struck me, though, was how our laws came to be. No, not the old School House Rock “I’m Just a Bill” cartoon. (Those were awesome!) The Constitution was written with a quill pen. After the Civil War, laws and amendments were typed. Now we are on the cusp of the original documents being electronic.
Another thing that’s striking is the communications presidents have had to rely on. George Washington depended on horse-and-rider. The peace offer that could have stopped the War of 1812 literally passed the declaration of war against England somewhere in the Atlantic, both taking three weeks to arrive. On the other hand, Lincoln, by necessity of a war literally in sight of the White House, was the first wired president, keeping a bank of telegraph units in the nearby War Department. Since Johnson, presidents have had satellite capability and instant links to world leaders. Barack Obama can Skype with Vladimir Putin (though they likely use something more secure for direct conversations.)
It’s been a fascinating way to look at American history.