As I approach my 80th year, it occurs to me that I have co-existed with one third of my country’s history. Perhaps those eight decades have given me some grounds for judgment concerning the Maximum Leaders I remember. Herewith a few lines about each of the 13 Presidents I have lived under.
Franklin Roosevelt: At his death in 1945, my friend Jimmy cried. I did not cry (my Dad voted Republican), but I now acknowledge him as The Great One who transformed government from a hapless bystander (and sometimes accomplice) of economic collapse to a last resort job provider, as it should be. And he saved old folks from squalor with Social Security.
Harry Truman: The last Great Commoner and thus the last President so broke when he left office that Congress was moved to provide a Presidential pension. I and many others thought him a jerk in his time, but now I revere his courageous fight for New Deal values—unions, minimum wage, universal health care, and a beginning of racial equality (he integrated the Army).
Dwight Eisenhower: Got my first vote, 1956. His greatest achievement: kept us out of Indo-China against unanimous pressure from his Secretary of State and the Joint Chiefs of Staff to save the French colony from a communist takeover. Also sponsored the Interstate Highway System, thank God.
JFK: The most charming personality of the thirteen, with the most despicable character (for his abuse of women—I am indifferent to his love life otherwise.) He changed my vote from two thirds Republican and one third Democrat to the reverse with his remark that only one Republican had voted for the Social Security Act in 1937. On November 22, 1963, I cried.
Lyndon Johnson: A vulgar slob with a great heart for America’s neediest. Got Medicare for otherwise uninsurable old people and got Voting and Accommodation Rights for people of color but was bamboozled by Kennedy’s leftover advisors to sink into the swamp of Vietnam. A tragic waste.
Richard Nixon: A lousy personality and dubious character but still our most underrated President. He moved to end the Cold War with opening to Red China and signed landmark bills for domestic welfare, creating the Environmental Protection Agency and OSHA, indexing Social Security to inflation and proposing universal health care. Convicted of Watergate ties by his own secret audiotapes, which any other President would have burned upon exposure.
Gerald Ford: A very nice man. Main achievement: occasioned John Updike’s novel, "Memories of the Ford Administration." I thoroughly approved his blanket pardon of his predecessor, Richard Nixon, whose public evisceration would have been an unpretty spectacle.
Jimmy Carter: Our unluckiest President, who held office when the Ayatollah Khomeini toppled the Shah of Iran, quadrupling oil prices and ruining the world economy. Far-sighted: put solar panels on White House (which Reagan removed) but suffered from high, thin voice contrasting with Reagan’s strong, confident baritone. Admirable post-Presidential career in charity work and peacemaking.
Ronald Reagan: A great personality—witty, good-natured, strong-minded—but still our most absurdly overrated President regarding policy. Denounced Medicare as “socialism.” Doubled Pentagon spending and handed the bill to the nation’s children via deficits, tripling the national debt in eight years. Cultivated a hatred of government that is now culminating in Tea Party yahoo-ism. Abolished Fairness Doctrine on public airwaves, thus perpetrating Hate Radio and that voice of the RNP called Fox News Promoted deregulation of High Finance, thereby facilitating repeated global economic crises since 1980s. I repent of my vote for Reagan in 1984.
George H. W. Bush: An intelligent, responsible man, who raised taxes to alleviate the debt burden on America’s children and reversed Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait without committing W’s (Cheney’s) disastrous blunder of occupying Iraq. HOWEVER, he condoned the vilest political ad I have ever seen, putting the face of Willie Horton, a black rapist murderer, on TV month after month to win the 1988 campaign by stirring racial hatred.
Bill Clinton: The smartest President since Teddy R, an asset he shrewdly hid behind an amiable, folksy manner. Highly unintelligent love life, but was saved by the monumental scale and gall of his adversaries’ hypocrisy. Stymied after first two years by Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America, but there is a chance that a new President may emerge from the Clinton family matrix with better luck next time.
George W. Bush/Richard Cheney: They lost the election of 2000 by over half a million votes but were anointed to power by five Supreme Court justices with links to Bush/Cheney’s political party. About the subsequent eight years I have too much (and therefore nothing) to say.
Barack Obama: Patient, disciplined and highly intelligent, he wasted years trying the community organizer approach to his Presidency, seeking common interests with Republicans. But there was no community to organize nor many common interests among legislators beholden to their Hate Radio voting constituency, including birthers, anti-evolutionists, gun fanatics, Muslim/Kenyan conspiracy mongers, and the like. Even so, Barack Obama is the luckiest politician of our group in his choice of opponents, each of whom except one (Hillary Clinton) imploded.
I voted twice for Barack Obama with joyous enthusiasm, but I conclude with a salute to his opponent John McCain. In 2008 a videotape surfaced featuring Obama’s long time pastor, Elijah Wright, declaiming, just after 9/11, “I say not God Bless America, but God damn America.” I believe that by doing a Willie Horton turn, McCain would have won that election. But against urgent pleas within his campaign, McCain categorically refused to win by stirring racial hatred. For that, he deserves an eternal badge of honor from the American people.
Victor Strandberg is a professor of English. His column is the sixth installment in a semester-long series of biweekly columns written by members of the humanities faculty at Duke.