Our Favorite Presidents 10/17/2016

October 16, 2016

Our Favorite Presidents


We all admire our ‘founding fathers’…Washington, Jefferson, Adams and others.  What a brain trust of revolutionary thinkers and articulate communicators!  And yet, despite serious consideration of timeless and self-evident truthsthey did not address human slavery.  Furthermore, only white males were allowed to vote.  Every administration is derivative of its time and we forgive their short-comings.

A rough-hewn soldier, Andrew Jackson once stared down a would-be assassin.  On another occasion, his supporters carried hand-guns as they stalked political opponents through the darkened streets of Washington.

Lincoln remains our greatest leader, in my opinion, steadfast and articulate during a time of war. That conflict had as much to do with our domination of the South as with the abolition of slavery.  Arguing the importance of state’s rights, southern leaders sought power to ‘nullify’ unfavorable pronouncements from the federal government.

General Grant is considered one of our worst leaders.  He opened the door to profiteers.

President Garfield was well-prepared for high office.  But in 1881 the practice was for a President to personally interview aspirants for his administration.  He denied a job to a forgettable applicant and paid a mortal price.

Who doesn’t like Teddy Roosevelt?  He ascended from the vice presidency, an energetic reformer, a popular writer, a powerful speaker, former secretary of the navy.  He once finished a speech with an assassin’s bullet in his chest.  A hero of war and western law-enforcement, his presidential tour-of-duty ended all too soon.  And yet, critics blame him for secret agreements that led inevitably to subsequent conflict in the Pacific.

I made it through twelve of eighteen CDs in the biography of Calvin Coolidge.  (I should get presidential commendation for that feat.) Well-prepared as a Vermonter of sterling character and former governor of Massachusetts, he took over from Warren Harding during a time between wars.  Silent Cal was no communicator.  Issues of the day included veterans’ care and supply-side-economics.  He once surprised a thief in his hotel room, loaned money to the man, and eventually received payment in full.

I remember the day Kennedy was shot.  I was getting a haircut.  I don’t know if he was a great president…so many things were unfinished.  But he was a great leader who captured our ear and our passion.

In 1968, at age 15, I stayed up until 2 AM watching the Republican National Convention, back when conventions entailed an uncertain outcome.

Despite his insistence to the contrary, Nixon always looked like a crook to me.  So did his key people.  We ran him out of office because Americans don’t like Presidents who sweat a lot on TV.

My Wife and I both voted against Gerald Ford…for pardoning Nixon.  I guess we wanted Nixon to sweat some more.   So we ended up with a southern peanut farmer and lousy chief executive.  And yet, his book, An Hour before Daylight, provides tremendous insight into the segregated-south and southern agriculture.

Reagan began his preparation for the presidency as a conservative spokesman for General Electric, and followed up as Governor of our largest state.  He surrounded himself with ethical and effective advisors…Meese, Deaver, Baker, Stockman, and survived an assassination attempt.  Once his key advisors moved on, the second term faltered, as they often do.  Yet his rhetoric resonates to this day.  It’s hard for millennials to comprehend the cold war and the logic of mutually assured destruction which represented the backdrop to the American Presidency for so many decades.

Bush Sr arrived without the communication skills of Reagan, but with tremendous preparation for office as a congressman, war veteran, CIA head, UN delegate, Vice President.  Some were critical of his presidency, but few assailed his ethics, commitment or character.  I once saw him at a Cleveland Indians game, after his presidency, not in the loges but in the cheap seats like us.

I’ve never been a fan of Bill Clinton.  We won the cold war before his time and then threw a fin de siècle party (French for eight years, but he moved legislation to the political ‘middle’ and I appreciate that.

History may judge Bush W more kindly than critics at the time.  He didn’t waver.  He didn’t falter.  As a communicator he remains an inspiration to bad grammar students everywhere.

In recent years, my wife, sons and workers have cancelled out my vote many times over.  Personally, I think the vote of small business owners should count triple.

What inferences can we draw from my brief history of the US Presidency?

Most of our greatest leaders were gifted communicators. Each Presidency is shaped by contemporary events. Wit and charisma…or a good speech writer…are great accompaniments.  Corruption is always knocking at the door.  Effectiveness is valued over sterling character…and the public has a high tolerance for marital indiscretions.  Vitriolic debate, toxic personal attacks and biting political satire remain as much a part of Washington, from our earliest experiments with democracy, as the muggy weather.

Wouldn’t a single six-year-term for our President eliminate much of the posturing and pandering attendant to a second run?  What if we kept the Senate the same, but reduced the size of the House by one half?  (congressman can represent larger districts these days).  What if we enacted true campaign finance reform?  Why doesn’t anyone listen to me!

We’ve had low points in our presidential election process before.  We’ll get through this one too.


Mark Gilson