Jimmy Carter

JimmyCarterPortrait2The first president I remember is Nixon. The first president I remember taking office is Ford. But Carter’s was the first presidential election I remember, being 10 at the time. I think, for a while afterward, I remember thinking that Nixon was a Republican, so Republicans must be bad. I wanted the smiling guy from Georgia to be president. However, I was eight years from casting my first vote. (Mondale. And I’ve been kicking myself over that one ever since.)

Carter came into the White House as an outsider, portraying himself as a citizen president. It was what America needed after Johnson and Nixon, and especially after the shattering of trust that followed Watergate. Unfortunately, that doomed Carter’s administration from the start. He was very forward thinking on several issues. Among his initiatives were energy independence and national healthcare. However, Carter also took hardline stances with the Soviet Union, often accused by European leaders of unnecessarily provoking them while turning around and normalizing relations with Beijing.

Carter’s biggest problem, one that later plagued George W. Bush and dogs Barack Obama, is his relations with Congress. Bush, at least, got along with his party, but failed to establish rapport with Democratic leadership. Former Senator Bob Dole has accused Obama of not only the same with Republicans, but also failing to build bridges within his own party. That describes Jimmy Carter to a T.

You have to admire Carter for sticking to his common man narrative, though. By 1977, when he took the oath, Americans had had enough of Washington insiders and veterans. And Carter, a two-term governor of Georgia, was tired of Congress’s intractability when his state needed Washington to lead, follow, or get out of the way. It’s a frequent complaint of governors both current and former, including Carter’s eventual opponent and successor, Ronald Reagan.

But an outsider cannot push Congress the way someone with connections can. You are dealing with 535 men and women each beholden to their own constituents, each with their own network of Washington insiders, and each heavily lobbied any number of interests from environmentalists to the gun lobby. Without a connection to any of them, a president is doomed to failure. It’s a wonder he ever got the Panama Canal Treaty done.

Carter did have two things to his credit heading into the 1980 election. The first, less noticeable because of other factors and for bearing fruit so late in his presidency, was an economy on the rebound. It wasn’t quite morning in America yet, but a few rays were showing in October, 1980. Despite pressure from the left to implement wage and price controls, Carter’s economic team attacked inflation by raising interest rates to match, which eventually slowed the double-digit rates, something we haven’t seen even during the Great Recession. Second, and most notably, Carter brokered the deal between Begin and Sadat that saw Israel withdraw from the Sinai. It was a watershed moment in Middle East relations that no president since has been able to duplicate. (Clinton came very close in the 1990’s, only to have that work undone when Yitzak Rabin was assassinated.) Those two things alone might have earned Carter a second term, except…

The Iranian hostage crisis blindsided Carter. Poor intelligence in Tehran suggested the Shah, not the most noble of leaders, was stable, and revolution was unlikely. That was 1977. In 1978, the Ayatollah Khomeni returned to Iran and swept the Shah aside almost effortlessly. By the end of the year, militants supporting the new regime would take the US embassy and hold fifty-two Americans hostage for 444 days. The regime demonstrated its duplicity when it complained that Canada illegally spirited away a dozen Americans who slipped out of the embassy as it fell. At the time, perception that Carter did nothing, coupled with a failed military rescue operation, battered his already growing reputation as a weak and ineffective president. Even a series of gaffes on the part of Reagan during the 1980 campaign could not restore confidence in Carter.

Even then, he might have had a chance had he not faced what is now the last serious attempt to unseat a sitting president for his party’s nomination. Ted Kennedy ran for the nomination, a sign that the Democrats themselves were dissatisfied with the president they had seated. A similar effort by Reagan badly wounded Gerald Ford’s campaign, putting Carter in the White House.

Carter is looked upon as a failed president, and to some extent, that’s true. He had Woodrow Wilson’s rigid mindset with no Col. Edward House or Edith Wilson to build bridges for him. Like Wilson, he learned diplomacy on the fly. Unlike Wilson, Carter learned and adapted to the point where he earned a reputation as America’s best ex-president. Unlike Nixon, who wrote and lectured, mainly to rehabilitate his legacy, Carter simple did. He went to the Middle East before the Persian Gulf War to try and broker a settlement. Presidents Bush (41) and Clinton sent him with UN missions to observe elections. And much to the chagrin of President Bush (43), he visited Cuba to push for more open relations between the island and the US.

But his biggest accomplishment? His involvement with Habitat for Humanity, an organization that takes a bottom-up approach to addressing poverty, building homes for people who need some means to escape an endless cycle of slums, Section 8 housing, and crushing debt. Have seen this effort up close (I helped work on a house while I was out of work a few years ago), I can attest that it’s much better managed and does more for the poor than many state and federal programs that seem bogged down in paperwork, useless regulations, and political jockeying.

Many presidents come into the White House with their biggest accomplishments behind them. A few, like Lincoln, both Roosevelts, and Truman, are made by the presidency. For Jimmy Carter, the presidency was just the beginning.

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Gerald Ford

jerryfordTwo men who had the most unenviable task in presidential history are Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. Both men had to follow the implosion of Richard Nixon’s presidency. Both men were honest, likeable, and from humble beginnings. Of the two, Ford probably had the hardest job.

Gerald Ford began life as Leslie King, Jr. When he was two months old, his mother fled Omaha, Nebraska, tired of dealing with the abusive Leslie King, Sr. She married a man named Gerald Ford, who adopted the future president and gave him his name. Ford would learn enough about his biological father to make the elder King one of the very few people he would openly despise. How badly did he resent his biological father’s treatment and later neglect of his mother? Early in his law career, a rookie lawyer needed a case to build his resume. Hearing the normally pleasant and amiable Ford rail on Leslie King’s nonpayment of support, the lawyer offered to handle a lawsuit against King. King, who had a hard time understanding that his son now called Gerald Ford, Sr., “Dad,” pleaded with Ford to call off his mother. Ford’s response.

“That’s your problem. Settle it with her.” Mrs. Ford took him for $4000.

Ford joined a generation of politicians who came to prominence in the late 1940’s that included future presidents John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, shepherded along by Congressional stalwarts in both parties like Sam Rayburn.

Though Ford, to date, the only unelected president in US history, served less than 900 days in the White House, his is probably one of the most important presidencies in the Cold War era. Beginning with his vice presidency, in which he was the first vice president appointed under the Twenty-fifth Amendment, he had to walk a fine line between defending Nixon and keeping his party together. As late as a week before Nixon’s resignation, Ford believed Nixon had another six months before he would have to resign. (That it would have shortened his own term as president to less than two years, making him eligible for two elected terms in his own right, might have crossed his mind.) The first thing out of his mouth after taking the oath of office was “I am acutely aware that you have not elected me as your President by your ballots, and so I ask you to confirm me as your President with your prayers.”

A wise move. After the abuses and subterfuge of Watergate, the last thing Americans were in the mood for was having an unchosen president foisted upon them. For the most part, Ford was well-liked and enjoyed high approval ratings. However, when he pardoned Nixon unconditionally, he likely cost himself a chance to win an election in his own right. Also, Ford, like Eisenhower, George H. W. Bush, and Robert Dole, came from the moderate segment of the Republican Party. The liberal wing, represented by Ford’s own vice president, Nelson Rockefeller, was in rapid decline while the right wing, led by Ronald Reagan, began asserting more and more power. Reagan’s bid for the 1976 nomination likely weakened Ford to the point where he could not overcome the pardon. His successor, Jimmy Carter, would meet a similar fate when Ted Kennedy mounted what became the last serious attempt to wrest a party nomination from a sitting president.

The final nail in his political coffin, however, came during the debates with Carter when he said, “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.” It’s one of those gaffes that you can’t take back once it’s out, especially on camera in front of the entire nation.

Ford reluctantly retired from politics and opted against running against Carter in 1980 in favor of Ronald Reagan. Unfortunately, it relegated him to the role of interim president. On the other hand, he and George H. W. Bush (Ford’s CIA director and one-time considered to be a possible vice president) would later become some of the most accessible former presidents in recent history. Ford kept busy in his post-presidency, serving on several corporate boards and raising money for worthy causes. Of all the former presidents alive when George W. Bush came to power, Ford had the most even-handed assessments of his more recent successors. He felt George Bush, Sr., was better than Reagan but ran a horrible campaign against Clinton. He admired Clinton’s flexibility, but did not think he had much depth. More surprisingly, upon meeting the Clintons for the first time, Ford remarked to friends and quite a few reporters that he thought Hillary Clinton would become America’s first female president. To biographer Thomas DeFrank, he remarked that Bill Clinton had stolen the young Hillary Rodham from the Republican Party. (Quite likely, it was a little envy on the part of Ford, who met her when she was a young intern in the early 1970’s.) He found George W. Bush too stubborn for his own good, and thought that Bush should have dumped Dick Cheney in 2004. This last assessment is remarkable as Ford named Cheney his chief of staff for a time and felt he was the perfect running mate for Bush in 2000. However, while Ford would not come out and say it, he seems to confirm Bob Woodward’s conclusion that Bush only wanted to hear an echo chamber.

Ford’s career, which almost lead to the role of Speaker of the House, is quite remarkable. It’s also rather low-key, which is why he’s often overlooked.

Richard Nixon

NixonHow does one write a fair summary of Richard Nixon? Having resigned in disgrace over the Watergate scandal, he forever tainted whatever legacy he might have had. But then only Nixon could go to China, and he did. A Republican, he proposed universal healthcare, sounded the alarm over dependence on foreign oil, and achieved a thaw in the Cold War.

So was Nixon really that bad? After all, he was “Tricky Dick.” Actually, the name stems from his 1950 primary campaign against actress Helen Gahagan Douglas for Senate. Douglas, not the shrewdest of politicians, actually ran a dirtier campaign than Nixon and invented the “Tricky Dick” nickname in reference to his 1946 victory over Orange County Congressman Jerry Voorhis. In all honesty, Voorhis had never faced anything but token opposition until Nixon ran.

On the one hand, Nixon is seen as a foreign policy genius, and his expertise formed the basis of his role as an elder statesman in his later years. But early in his career, he jumped on the red-baiting bandwagon early, joining the House Un-American Activities Committee. For this, many people paint him with the same brush as Senator Joseph McCarthy. Ironically, one of Nixon’s tasks as vice president was to basically pat McCarthy on the head, tell him Ike brooked no commies in his administration, and quietly push the senator out of the spotlight as his excesses eroded his power. Nixon was a genuine anti-communist (which did not endear him to the left in the 1960’s); McCarthy was a drunken fear-monger.

What keeps Nixon from ranking in the upper echelon of presidents is Watergate and his behavior leading up to it. He wasn’t the first president to use questionable wiretaps on enemies. That honor goes to Franklin Roosevelt. And he did not have the most corrupt staff of the twentieth century; you can give that crown to Warren Harding. But Nixon destroyed all the goodwill he built up when he became paranoid about leaks. Every administration has them, and every administration deals with them in a manner the average citizen might not consider ethical. However, when former aide Daniel Ellsberg released the Pentagon Papers, Nixon commissioned “the plumbers,” a group of operatives who functioned essentially as burglars tasked with getting dirt on Nixon’s enemies. Even then, Nixon might have saved himself a lot of grief by appointing a disinterested third party to deal with the 1972 break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate Hotel (hence the name “Watergate.”) Instead, Nixon’s paranoia and self-destructive tendencies kicked in, and Nixon soon found himself almost synonymous with what he himself dubbed “a third-rate burglary.” In the tapes that ultimately unraveled his presidency, Nixon says, “It’s not the crime that gets you. It’s the cover-up.” By that point, the cover-up had already involved several instances of obstruction of justice, including attempting to get the CIA to shut down the FBI investigation.

Sometimes, it seems as though Nixon and America might have been better off if he had won the presidency in 1960 instead of 1968. But the self-destructive streak showed itself when he lost the California governor’s race to Pat Brown when he lashed out at the press and said, “You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.” Some suggest, and it’s probably true, that Nixon had an inferiority complex as a graduate of an unknown Quaker college in Whittier, California, when moving amongst the Harvard, Yale, and Princeton grads who dominated (and still dominate) Washington. Never mind that Nixon was one of the top graduates of Duke University’s first law class. What ultimately destroyed Nixon was that, unlike his predecessors or most of his successors, he could not enjoy power once he attained it. FDR, Johnson, and Reagan all had huge egos that fed on the Oval Office, but it enabled them to accomplish much. The White House battered Nixon’s ego badly, which doomed him to a slow political suicide.

Presidential Reading

The White House

Photo: Matt Wade Photography, used under Creative Commons

In reading about the presidents, I’ve reached Nixon, which means I’ve reached a point in American history within my own lifetime. I’ve also reached a series of presidents for whom there are few objective books about. FDR is fading rapidly from living memory so that history has taken over his story, as has Harry Truman. Likewise, Dwight Eisenhower is far enough in the rear view mirror that he generally gets a fair treatment.

Surprisingly, I was able to find one about Kennedy, Jack: A Life Like No Other by Geoffery Perret, that manages to strip much of the conspiracy theories and the focus on salacious details of his life to give a reasonable assessment of his career and presidency. Perrett ends his account of JFK with the assassination, asserting Oswald acted alone, but treating the murder as little more than a tragic exclamation point to a fascinating life. Perret even mentions Kennedy’s infamous libido, acknowledging his longtime affair with Marylin Monroe and casual encounters with Claire Luce Booth and Marlene Dietrich, but doesn’t bring them front and center. Perret focuses on Kennedy’s politics, aspirations, and friendships, including one with rival Richard Nixon. But then we get to…

Lyndon Johnson. The Baby Boomers are old enough to remember. And there are enough Boomers to muddy the waters surrounding him. Vietnam and some of the unexpected effects of the Great Society have left a negative impression on Johnson’s tenure, but I was able to find a fair assessment of his career in Merle Miller’s Lyndon: An Oral Biography. The book consisted of Miller’s interviews over several years with LBJ’s colleagues and relatives, augmented by published interviews and writings by Johnson and some of those who had passed on. It and Jack go a long way toward debunking some of the urban myths that have grown up around Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon, most of which are partisan garbage to begin with.

And then there’s Richard Nixon. Watergate and Vietnam left a huge, muddy footprint in history that isn’t coming clean very easily. In the absence of books by such talents as Walter Isaacson, David McCullough, or Joseph Ellis, we’re left with Nixon’s memoirs (not the most objective source of information) and a host of hand-wringing books and tomes of revisionist history that are only slightly more informative than your average AM talkshow or idiot cable news pundit. Originally, I planned on watching the Frost/Nixon interviews, only I wasn’t sure I wanted to sit through twenty hours of Nixon trying to charm Frost until Frost boxed him in on Watergate. I took a chance on Conrad Black’s Nixon: A Life Like No Other. It’s a fairly good treatment of Nixon up through about 1972, even calling Nixon out on the wiretaps and the meltdown over Daniel Ellis’s releasing the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times. And then Black gets to Watergate and attempts a little revisionism, saying the tapes clearly show Nixon did not do anything. The funny thing is that I listened to Stanley Kutler’s Abuse of Power. Black denies the smoking gun smoked, and yet not only did I hear the smoking gun (acted out with William Windom doing a dead-on Nixon), but Nixon near the end kicking himself over covering up the break-in, realizing he was pretty much screwed at that point. Up to that point, and with his account of Nixon’s post-presidency, Black shows his partisanship enough to allow the reader to filter what they read. But his account of Watergate, though favorable to Nixon, comes off as a rant by Sean Hannity.

For the rest of the presidents up to George H.W. Bush, I’ve found books of their recollections and writings: Write It When I’m Gone (off-the-record interviews with Gerald Ford that he consented to post-humous publication), The Reagan Diaries, and All the Best, George Bush. With the exception of Carter, who doesn’t seem to even rate a Bob Woodward grilling, I thought it best to look at the most recent presidents in their own words. I remember enough about Reagan and Bush that I can draw my own conclusions. But what about Clinton, George W. Bush, or Barack Obama?

Too recent. I could go with Bob Woodward’s exposes, but I’m not so sure Woodward isn’t trying to repeat his Watergate accomplishments. Clinton wrote an autobiography, My Life, but from all accounts, Clinton, normally a brilliant writer, is ill-suited to biographical work, especially autobiographical work. I debated about skipping Clinton and reading Bush’s Decision Points. For all my dislike of Bush as president, I’ve found his post-presidency a model for someone who does not want to go the same route as Nixon and Carter. Want to know what’s going through Obama’s mind? Ask George Bush. Not only does he know the guy, but he’ll tell you what goes through a president’s mind when he or she makes a decision. But I decided to skip it. This project has been about following American history from the vantage point of the White House, and Bill Clinton is just now moving from recent news to history. Should Hillary Clinton win the White House in 2016, it will be at least another decade before Bill Clinton’s presidency can be assessed objectively. Indeed, the only reason one can look at the elder Bush objectively these days is that he is sufficiently different from his son that the relationship is almost irrelevant.

Tomorrow, I talk Nixon.

LBJ

Lyndon JohnsonAs we reach the first sitting president in my lifetime, we find a man of contradictions. Lyndon Johnson was a crude man, prone to fits of rage, and above all, a politician first. At the same time, he was a very compassionate man, fiercely devoted to his wife Lady Bird (herself a bit of a maverick and successful in her own right), and a visionary.

Johnson today is remembered as the liberal, yet it may surprise many that his views were actually closer to more moderate figures like his vice president, Hubert Humphrey or Republican Bob Dole. His Great Society, a blueprint for combating poverty was less a socialist experiment than a means of eliminating the biggest drag on American capitalism: The poor can’t spend money very well because they don’t have any.

LBJ came out of East Texas in the 1930’s, the son of a state legislator like himself. Like his idol, Franklin Roosevelt, Johnson was extremely ambitious. Yet his background taught him to value education. His mother made him learn public speaking as a child, and it would be this subject that would make him a standout as an educator during and just after his college years.

Conservatives like to criticize Johnson for the Great Society, and indeed, between that and the Vietnam War, Johnson’s reach may have exceeded his grasp. He did not have Nixon’s pragmatism to temper his goals. On the other hand, he also lacked Nixon’s self-destructive tendencies. Those close to him saw many of the character flaws that brought down Nixon, yet Johnson’s temper was genuine, usually short-lived, and balanced by a real affection for those who served him loyally. In short, Johnson was not paranoid and angry, just larger than life.

Vietnam bogged down his presidency. What many did not realize was that Johnson did not envision a war of conquest in South Vietnam. He saw what many have since learned. He wanted to setup a Tennessee Valley Authority-style program in the Mekong Delta to improve conditions for Vietnamese farmers, raising their standard of living, which in turn would stabilize the country. China and India later applied that principle to their own countries, revolutionizing their economies. But like Ike and JFK before him, he had no idea how to fight a war against a guerrilla army and an intractable Ho Chi Minh. The strain ultimately killed Johnson, his heart the real reason he did not seek, nor would he accept, his party’s nomination for another term as your president.

We’re used to persuasive presidents. Reagan would playfully chide his opposition, knowing he would never get everything he wanted. Bush, Sr., was a more a business executive than an autocrat, and Clinton thrived on bull sessions, intellectual sparring, and deal-making. George W. Bush spent most of his term with a Congress in line with his thinking and needed to do little persuading until his final two years, by which time, he adopted more of his father’s tone.

Perhaps it’s come full circle. Barack Obama shows some of the same Johnson tendencies when dealing with Congress, cajoling and pushing to get his agenda through, but with a little more charm and a lot less bluster. But like Johnson, Obama has united liberals and conservatives in infuriating them both. Somewhere, Lyndon is smiling. His civil rights efforts have yielded a president who does it his way, the LBJ way.

Just without the skinny dipping in the White House pool.

JFK

Kennedy announcing moon projectJohn F. Kennedy not only should have been alive during my lifetime, but he should have had the opportunity to be the first sitting president in my lifetime. Instead, the gunshots from his assassination were still echoing throughout the world on the day of my birth in 1966.

Kennedy had a lot in common with two other twentieth century presidents, Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt. The Roosevelts came from a wealthy northeastern family and saw public service as an obligation, as did Kennedy. Like the Roosevelts, Kennedy also went against the dogma of his class, including his father, Joseph P. Kennedy.

But if you had to compare Kennedy to either of the Roosevelts, it would have to be Franklin. Theodore worked most of his life, even though he did not really need to. He was a rancher, legislator, civil servant, and soldier before becoming vice president. Franklin was more the idle rich youth shepherded early on by his mother before coming into his own during his thirties. Likewise, Jack Kennedy was an aimless student at Harvard, having to endure comparisons to his brother, Joseph Kennedy, Jr., whom Joe Kennedy originally wanted to become president. In this respect, Jack (and brother Joe) had a lot in common with another Ivy League son of a man with dynastic ambitions, George H. W. Bush, whose father Prescott also had dynastic ambitions.

When Joe went off to war, Jack emerged from his shadow and majored in government at Harvard, turning a thesis into a best-selling book, Why England Slept. It would be the beginning of a life-long obsession with foreign policy. He followed his brother Joe into the service, joining the Navy at the start of America’s involvement in World War II. It was here Kennedy’s sexual compulsions would get him into trouble. While working for Naval Intelligence, he began an affair with a reporter named Inga Arvad. Unfortunately, the FBI suspected Arvad of being a Nazi spy. Kennedy transferred to another post, then to the Great Lakes, and finally became a PT boat commander in the South Pacific. During his time in the South Pacific, Kennedy endured a harrowing two days at sea after his boat, the PT 109, was destroyed by a Japanese destroyer. Kennedy was decorated for his bravery, though the loss of two of his crew would forever haunt him.

Kennedy moved to Boston after the war, where he ran for Congress in 1946. Interestingly enough, this was also the year Richard Nixon won his first election to the House. Kennedy’s congressional election was largely a project for Joe Kennedy, Sr. It was also the point where Jack Kennedy decided he wanted to win the White House. Jack took to the plan with gusto. He had more reasons than just personal ambition and his father’s plans that drove him, however. During his Navy years, he suffered from severe back problems and poor health. Shortly after he began his career in Washington, he was also diagnosed with Addison’s disease, a progressive degeneration of the adrenal glands. Kennedy knew he would die young. So he invested his energy into his career. He often needed crutches to get around, but he gave the impression of being a vital, active young man.

Kennedy was not a spectacular senator or congressman, serving as he did in Republican-dominated congresses. Where he rose to national prominence came in 1956, when he campaigned actively to be Adlai Stevenson’s running mate. He lost to Estes Kefauver, but it was the beginning of the 1960 presidential campaign. And Kennedy knew he would face Vice President Richard Nixon.

Oddly enough, Nixon and Kennedy had a good working relationship when they served together in Congress. They had done a public debate on a major bill in the early 1950’s, spending the train ride back to Washington hammering out some committee business to be handled on their return. Once, when Kennedy was hospitalized for back surgery, the junior senator from Massachusetts found a fruit basket waiting for him when he returned to the office. The card read, “Welcome back! Dick Nixon.”

The 1960 campaign would permanently split the two men. Nixon was already noted for being a sore loser with a self-destructive streak. Kennedy would lose his temper just as badly, but was a skilled enough politician to keep it private, always showing the charm and the energy when he appeared in public.

Kennedy started his administration at a disadvantage. Winning the White House on a plurality, he had no real mandate from voters. He also faced a Republican Congress. From Eisenhower, he inherited a communist Cuba, as well as a jobless recovery. He didn’t help matters by authorizing the Bay of Pigs Invasion. Misinterpreting a briefing by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he and Bobby, his Attorney General, decided the plan to seize Cuba and oust Castro would work. When it did not, Kennedy was devastated and shook up his group of foreign policy advisers. Unfortunately, he also emboldened Nikita Krushchev, leader of the Soviet Union. Krushchev used the debacle to press East Germany for a peace treaty that would effectively oust the Allies from West Berlin. He also decided that, since the US had missiles in Turkey aimed directly across the Black Sea at the USSR (“directly at my dacha!” the Soviet leader frequently shouted to guests), why not stick a few in Cuba? JFK wasn’t having it and blockaded Cuba. This became the Cuban Missile Crisis that brought the world to the brink of nuclear war in 1961. Kennedy gave Krushchev one thing he wanted – quietly removing the missiles in Turkey – but only if the Soviets publicly removed the missiles from Cuba and allowed West Berlin to remain part of allied West Germany. Krushchev “blinked,” said Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara put it.

This emboldened Kennedy. He pushed for anti-poverty measures, many of which his successor, Lyndon Johnson, would get, leaned on Congress to pass civil rights legislation, and set a goal to put a man on the moon by 1970. One issue that would not go away was Vietnam. In an effort to stave off the threat of communist expansion, the US supported South Vietnam’s brutal and repressive regime, composed largely of French-educated Catholics. When the regime violently attacked Buddhists, Kennedy decided to withdraw support from the regime and promised support to a new regime after a military coup. He was not happy about it, and by then, Kennedy had an inkling that the US needed to write off Vietnam. Unlike Laos, where US involvement ended with a compromise between Kennedy and Krushchev, he saw only a repeat of the French debacle of the 1950’s.

So how did Kennedy turn his administration around despite an intransigent Congress and persistent high unemployment? (6.8%, which would be considered wonderful today.) Kennedy took his case directly to the people. Eisenhower held televised press conferences, but Kennedy took the unprecedented step of doing them live. He carefully managed how they were presented, but these days, we take it for granted that a president is going to speak live to the nation. He crafted his own image, making sure people saw the youthful playboy, not the Addison’s-riddled man with a deteriorating back. He also recruited rivals. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara was a Republican business executive while dark horse candidate for the Democratic nomination Adlai Stevenson served as UN ambassador during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Once, after a particularly brutal battle with Congress, Kennedy reached out to Barry Goldwater, the most likely GOP opponent in 1964 and then a leader in the Senate. Over lunch, Kennedy said, “So, you think you really want this f***ing job?” FDR had had similar conversations with Wendell Wilkie after the 1940 election, telling his new adviser, “Someday, you may have to sit in this office” when explaining why and how he made decisions.

What would Kennedy have achieved if he had not been cut down that November day in Dallas? Kennedy had started to gain traction with the American people when he decided to run again, and he had finally made in-roads with Congressional Republican leaders. Although many of his civil rights initiatives passed largely from support stemming from his death, it’s very likely these acts would have passed, though with more modest support. It’s also likely America’s involvement in Vietnam would have ended much sooner, and without the smaller country enduring war with China as happened in the 1970’s. Kennedy, while anti-communist, was willing to talk with communists, something that drove Krushchev to madness. But the Kennedy we elected in 1960 would not have been the Kennedy welcoming his successor to office in 1969. His back was deteriorating so rapidly that, by the midterm of his second administration, he would have been wheelchair-bound. Also, eventually, the effects of his Addison’s disease and the use of drugs to counteract his poor health would have taken their toll.

We will never know for sure, however. When those shots rang out in Dallas in 1963, it began one of the greatest periods of unrest in recent history.

Dwight Eisenhower

President Dwight EisenhowerStarting with Harry Truman, we’ve come to the presidents who were alive in my lifetime. And yet, I don’t remember Harry Truman, who had been retired over 13 years by the time I was born. I do have very vague memories of Dwight Eisenhower, aka “Ike,” from when I was a very small child. Mostly, it came from archival footage shown during Nixon’s term.

Mind you, I’m too young to have gotten what all the fuss about Nixon was at the time. Looking back on him is going to make for an interesting blog post.

For Eisenhower, I read Michael Korda’s Ike: An American Hero. Korda, a British ex-pat living in New Jersey, actually met many of the players in the drama that was World War II’s European Theater. For an Englishman, Korda does show a certain contempt for a large number of British generals and admirals, most notably Bernard “Monty” Montgomery. Mind you, he is equally hard on Douglas MacArthur and, while admiring of him, George Patton. But Korda’s somewhat fawning biography demonstrates something I said early on about earlier presidents. Many of those who occupied the Oval Office had already peaked before reaching the White House. John Adams, James Madison, and James Monroe all were guaranteed prominent places in history before their terms in office, but were not spectacular presidents themselves. William Henry Harrison, Zachary Taylor, and Ulysses Grant were revered generals whose political careers were lackluster at best, even after winning the highest office in the land. (Harrison, in fact, is most famous for dying in office, as Taylor did. However, Taylor is better known as a general in the Mexican War.) Calvin Coolidge accomplished more as governor of Massachusetts. Hoover was a brilliant engineer and humanitarian, but a lousy president. George H. W. Bush did more as a diplomat, spy master, and vice president before finishing up Ronald Reagan’s paperwork in the late 80’s and early 90’s.

Ike often gets lumped in with this group. There was an image of him in office, one that he did not exactly discourage, of being a caretaker president, that he spent most of his time playing golf and watching TV (the first president to do so regularly) with wife Mamie. But Ike, in spite of recurring heart trouble, was a shrewd president, quietly working behind the scenes to accomplish his agenda. What frequently emerges when one looks more closely at Ike is how prescient the man was. He knew Germany would be divided after World War II and that Stalin would be uncooperative. He also foresaw the need for NATO so that Europe would not be left again at the mercy of a hungry Napoleon, most likely from a vengeful Germany. He also bewildered some by not reacting to the hysteria of the 1950’s. He refused to engage Joseph McCarthy, seeing him as a drunk who would (and did) eventually self-destruct. (Rather spectacularly to the point where archive footage of him in Good Night and Good Luck was criticized for poor casting in the role of Senator McCarthy.) Ike also did not believe in the missile gap, knowing full well that the Soviets did not have nearly the missiles they claimed or even the missiles the United States had.

Ike was a moderate and a very calm man, though fits of temper on his part were legendary. It may surprise you to learn that the man who commanded the troops of three major powers in World War II and balanced the egos of Patton, Monty, and DeGaulle, came from a pacifist Mennonite background. Eisenhower grew up in Abilene, Kansas, a quiet Midwestern farm town. Although he was a career military officer, he actually has quite a bit in common with his more liberal predecessor, Harry Truman.  Both were from small Midwestern towns, had a solid work ethic, and were brilliant at their chosen fields: Eisenhower in the military and Truman in politics. So from 1945, with the death of the wealthy FDR, to 1961, when Joseph Kennedy’s son Jack assumed the presidency, America was governed by common men from the Middle America. They were not towering intellects (or egotists) like Theodore Roosevelt or Woodrow Wilson. (In fact, both men had contempt for Wilson, but then so did a lot of people in charge of fighting World War II.) Both men despised playing games, though could when called upon. And Eisenhower, despite being a modest man skilled at negotiating with kings, dictators, presidents, and field marshals, was ambitious as hell.

What probably saved Ike from the arrogance that plagued colleagues like Patton and MacArthur was that Ike 1.) came from a poor background (Both MacArthur and Patton were wealthy), and he was an administrative officer through most of his career. But he was very forward thinking. After World War I, when traditional cavalry was still thought to be the norm for warfare (despite evidence to the contrary in France), Ike and Patton took a tank apart and reassembled it, developing theories on how to use them in combat. This sort of experimentation would win the war in Europe and even prompt Rommel to openly wish he was an Allied general. (“I could win this war in 14 days,” Rommel said after Normandy.)

Perhaps Ike’s greatest accomplishment is keeping the Cold War from becoming hot. He resisted calls to use atomic bombs against China and, years before Nixon finally did so, recommended normalizing relations with the People’s Republic of China. Today, China is seen as a wealthy, if ambitious, hub of capitalism, but in Ike’s day, the nominally communist nation counted Josef Stalin and Nikita Kruschev as its patrons. As Ike extricated America from the Korean War, he warned of getting involved in another Asian hot spot, Vietnam. The French were losing badly and making many of the mistakes that would send America home with its collective tail between its legs in 1975. Kennedy realized this, but died before he could reverse course. Johnson and Nixon plunged ahead with this misadventure.

It’s doubtful Eisenhower could get elected today. Witness the downfall of David Petraeus, a brilliant officer who could do well in either major party. Today, Ike’s relationship with Kay Summersby, his driver and secretary during his command of the Allied Forces, would be fodder for 24-hour news channels and wreck his career before he could even mop up in North Africa. Plus Ike’s personality was very low-key. He lost his temper privately, exerting considerable control in public situations where Monty and MacArthur would have ranted and where Patton did shoot his mouth off. The media doesn’t respect level-headed, thoughtful leaders, demanding larger-than-life personalities that they can build up and tear down quickly. There’s a reason Ike is identified with a simpler time.