A dozen presidents

Sunday, January 25, 2009

It's amazing to think that, in my lifetime, 12 U.S. presidents have been inaugurated: Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, G.H.W. Bush, Clinton, G.W. Bush and Obama.

As the nation moves on from an inauguration week filled with hope and excitement, I find myself processing tidbits of information about the dozen most recent presidents, some from my own memories and some from historical sources.

I do not remember Truman as president, but early in my newspaper career I was the executive editor of The Examiner, Truman's hometown newspaper in Independence, Mo. Ben Zobrist, the longtime director of the Truman Library, became a good friend. Mrs. Truman still lived in the two-story frame house a couple of blocks off the square. From that experience I learned what ordinary lives extraordinary newsmakers live. One of Bess Truman's best friends and confidantes was a longtime Examiner reporter and columnist. When she told stories about Bess, they sounded just like the stories other colleagues told about their friends and families.

Eisenhower was a war hero, and farm boys in the 1950s needed real-life heroes to look up to. One winter afternoon my cousin and I went for a walk through the fields and hills of the Killough Valley farm where I grew up. We spotted a bright red balloon caught in the branches of a sapling. My cousin climbed up to retrieve the balloon, which had a note tied to the end of a string. It was signed by a boy named Eisenhower, and the wind had blown the message from near Abilene, Kan., to Southeast Missouri. He was a relative of the president. After that, Eisenhower was my man.

Kennedy was the president who looked and sounded like my generation even though he was the product of a wealthy and politically ambitious Irish clan from Massachusetts. His death, while I was a sophomore in college, and the televised shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald by Jack Ruby are among the most vivid memories of my lifetime.

My most remarkable memory of Johnson was his announcement that he wouldn't seek re-election. My wife and I heard the broadcast on our car radio as we drove across Oklahoma's Arbuckle Mountains while returning home to Dallas from Missouri. We were so surprised -- and elated -- that we pulled off the road to let the news sink in.

The Nixon years were sad ones. The fact that they coincided with much of the civil rights era didn't help. I was the editor in Nevada, Mo., when Nixon resigned -- right after deadline. I had finished up the front page before his announcement and walked across the street to grab a bite of lunch at one of the local supermarkets. By the time I got back, he had quit, and I immediately set about remaking the front page.

His bad timing, for me, was just one more blot.

As a son raised for several years by a single mother and having no contact with my father until I was in my 30s, I identify with Ford's childhood. He was born Leslie Lynch King Jr. His father was, by his own account, a brute who mistreated his mother. Days after he was born, the future president's mother took her baby and left.

Two and a half years later, his mother married Gerald Rudolff Ford. He was never adopted by his stepfather, but when he was 22 he legally changed his name to Gerald Rudolph Ford Jr. -- quite a testimony to the admiration he had for the man who was his father figure.

Ford wasn't the only president who wasn't elected, but he was the only one who never ran in a national election. He was appointed vice president after Spiro Agnew resigned and became president when Nixon resigned.

Carter has been a somewhat better former president than an in-office president.

Reagan's effect on the nation, particularly the way he changed the nation's regard for itself, was less apparent to me during his administration than in the years after he left the White House. His state funeral was, I think, an occasion that taught us all some significant lessons, both about politics and about statesmanship.

The first Bush, another war hero, slipped badly on the worst banana peel that can land in a president's path. "No new taxes" will ring in the ears of everyone who heard him say it for as long as we live.

Clinton's unpresidential escapades and legal hair-splitting were tiresome, but he was an even better communicator than the Great Communicator Reagan. His star stands a good chance of rising even further if Hillary Clinton proves to be an able secretary of state.

The second Bush's lot was framed by 9/11, and he never seemed to get out of that box. Perhaps history will release him. Fact is, we were not attacked again during his term.

Obama's election and inauguration will forever be part of American history. Let's hope his presidency will be equally well remembered by future historians.

The most remarkable aspect of American government is the continuity of our constitutional transfer of power. This seamless change from one administration to another is a remarkable piece of government in action. Presidents may, from time to time, grievously err and incur the wrath of politicians and voters. They may face impeachment. They may be hounded by pollsters' ratings. But when the sun comes up on Inauguration Day, we unite to listen to the oath, the speeches, the prayers, the singing of the national anthem. And we become part of a fabric that holds up to the worst wear imaginable. We -- each and every American -- are all threads of history.


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