“Dewey Defeats Truman” was the famously premature headline that trumpeted a Republican presidential victory in a Chicago newspaper. It didn’t take long for the bean counters to realize the mistake that had been made and Harry Truman was pronounced President of the United States for a second term about two weeks before I was born in November of 1948. Needless to say, I don’t remember a great deal about Harry Truman but somehow I recall my parents laughing about his “give em hell” attitude. They appeared to like his homespun ways and my mother often praised his wife for wearing unpretentious clothing and living a low key common woman kind of life in Missouri. I would later learn that Truman did a fairly decent job of shepherding our country after he was thrust into office upon the death of FDR but there would always be an element of controversy surrounding his willingness to use the atom bomb in Japan. I suppose that there is nothing simplistic about being the leader of one of the most powerful countries in the world.
I didn’t pay much attention to presidential politics as a child. I simply went with the flow believing that anybody who attained the highest office in the land was no doubt a fine fellow. I did a tiny bit of campaigning when I was around seven years old by enjoying the Eisenhower rallying cry of “I Like Ike!” I rode my bicycle around the neighborhood and my friends and I chanted this little ditty as the wind blew through our hair. Of course we had little idea regarding what this man’s political philosophy may have been. We had heard that he was some kind of war hero and he appeared to have a nice smile and a resemblance to our grandfathers. That was good enough to qualify him for the presidency in our minds. Somehow I never really associated him with the first rumblings of the Civil Rights movement until I overheard my father and my grandfather discussing the integration of a Little Rock, Arkansas high school. Even then I really didn’t understand the implications of the momentous movement that was unfolding. I would focus most of my attention on the tiny world that I inhabited.
By the time that John F. Kennedy was running for president I was a bit older and wiser. I still wasn’t a political junkie but I at least had a vague idea regarding the issues. In that campaign the media was just beginning to have an enormous influence on the thinking of the electorate. The two biggest issues were incredibly superficial but they foreshadowed the politics of the future. One revolved around Kennedy’s religion. In all of the years of our WASPish country not one Catholic had ever been successful in attaining the highest office in the land. There were many who feared that Kennedy would be beholden to the Pope and to the teachings of his religion and so the fact that he was a Catholic became a very big deal. The other controversy centered around the first televised presidential debate. Poor Richard Nixon was incredibly non-photogenic whereas Kennedy photographed like a Greek god. In many people’s minds imagery ruled the day. I suppose that I was young enough to still be quite superficial and I was hopelessly drawn into hero worship of John Kennedy. That feeling only intensified when he was assassinated.
Lyndon Johnson was a fellow Texan and had been one of the most powerful men in Congress. He understood the art of the grand deal perhaps more than anyone but there would always be whispers about how he ultimately landed the job of President of the United States. The fact that Kennedy had been killed in Texas didn’t help to dispel rumors of Johnson’s shady dealings. When it came to a choice between Johnson and Barry Goldwater in the next election the nation seemed to agree with me that there was no contest. Lyndon Johnson won in a landslide. He was determined to pass ground breaking legislation and with his knack for arm twisting and the assistance of the Republicans in Congress he pushed through a Civil Rights Act and multiple proposals for social equality and justice. In fact, not since Franklin Roosevelt had so many executive proposals met with such success. Unfortunately the growing angst regarding the Vietnam War tainted Johnson’s presidency and most of the work that he had done for minorities and the poor was largely forgotten not just by the public at large but also by his own party.
I was finally allowed to vote in the next big election. It seemed to me that there should have been no contest. The affable Minnesotan, Hubert Humphrey, ran against Richard Nixon who had always seemed menacing to me. I was crushed when Nixon won the day and I literally spent the next many years cringing at the sight of him whenever he spoke. The reality is that the economy was fairly good during his tenure and he even managed to end the Vietnam War but I could not ever bring myself to like him. I even campaigned for George McGovern when Nixon ran for a second term. When Nixon won reelection by the largest margin in history I was crestfallen. Later when the world learned of his illicit activities with regard to the Watergate conspiracy I was not surprised. In my mind he had always been a crook and I would never find even a shred of kindness in my heart for him.
I never really counted Gerald Ford as being the President and yet he was by default. He actually performed quite admirably after Nixon was impeached but in my mind he was tarnished by association. I would later consider him more fairly and realize that he led our country through a very difficult time with a certain level of grace that we so needed.
I loved Jimmy Carter. He appeared to be a rather humble and exceedingly compassionate man. I voted enthusiastically for him but soon enough realized that he may have been in over his head. I suppose that he was a bit too much like me. He had a kind heart and a vision of mankind that was a often too forgiving. Given the enormous problems brewing in the Middle East during his tenure he was too willing to see the best in people rather than understanding that evil does exist. Things got away from him and the country suffered economically. I realized for the first time that the best man for the office is not always the nicest one.
I quite reluctantly voted for Ronald Reagan in the next election. I had not yet forgiven the Republicans for bringing us Richard Nixon. I wasn’t enormously impressed with Reagan. My vote was purely and simply a way of delivering the message that I had been very disappointed in Jimmy Carter’s presidency even though I would forever view him as one of the most incredibly sincere and generous people on earth. My own private world took off during the Reagan years. The decade of the eighties were in many ways the happiest years of my life and so I began to view Republicans a bit differently than I ever had before.
It didn’t take much to convince me to vote for George H.W. Bush. He had a great resume and he lived in Houston. I knew little about his opponent and I had been quite happy during the Reagan years. Unfortunately the economy took a turn for the worse during the Bush years and when he ran for reelection he somehow appeared to be out of touch with the rest of us. When his campaign maligned Bill Clinton for avoiding military service during the Vietnam War I felt a strong sting of irritation and so I voted for Clinton.
The Bill Clinton years were good for me and my family. He was a likable president even though it appeared to be true that he was the philanderer in chief. I was appalled by the news of his tryst with Monica Lewinsky but not particularly surprised. I thought that he was a fairly good president in spite of his corporal failings and I actually wish that we had more leaders with his ability to bring divergent sides together.
The last many years of politics have been troublesome for me. A political analysis of my views classifies me as a left leaning Libertarian. The choices of late have not been clearcut for me. I have been turned off by the rhetoric, the divisive actions, and the generally hateful environment that has been the standard since Bill Clinton left office. Both political parties rant and point fingers and engage in power trips and smearing of personal reputations. Much of the anger is fueled by a twenty four seven media frenzy more intent on creating sensational stories than seeking the truth. We the People have been manipulated and victimized over and over again. Somehow the political process has left a very bad taste in my mouth.
There was a time when the two political parties attempted to work together for the good of the people in general. Those who were willing to cross the aisle to forge compromise legislation were revered rather than reviled. Leaders were willing to admit mistakes and change course in pursuit of what they deemed to be best for the country. They actually listened to each other. Now every single day seems like a civil war. If I hear anymore about the Democrat or Republican bases I think that I will scream. Voting of late has held no pleasure for me.
I’d like to think that we are simply in a bad phase and that reason will arise again sometime in the future. I hope that it does so before I am gone. I suppose that we are adjusting to the new demands of a very different world than the one that I entered way back in 1948. Hopefully this too shall pass and we will settle down for a time and maybe even learn to talk with one another once again without anger and judgement.